US casual-dining restaurants begin offering new menus aimed at drawing in customers with increasingly sophisticated palates
April 15, 2014
– Music and memorabilia -- not the menu -- draw Ohio tourist Kim Myers to Hard Rock Cafe.
"The food, it is kind of incidental to everything else," said Myers, dining recently in the cafe at Universal CityWalk.
Hard Rock is seeking to change that attitude with a major menu makeover, one of many that casual-dining chains are doing to keep up in a competitive industry. Olive Garden, Smokey Bones and Tony Roma's are among those trying to offer a better bill of fare to woo diners with increasingly sophisticated palates.
"People are more food savvy because of social networking," Hard Rock's executive chef Russell Booth said. "They're expecting great food with flavor, with punch."
A musical museum of sorts, Hard Rock is themed to the extreme. But the company said it wants to make what diners taste as much a reason to visit as what they see and hear. So it conducted a soup-to-nuts analysis that spanned 15 months and solicited opinions from more than 3,000 customers.
Thirty dishes and drinks are new. Almost as many other items have different ingredients and preparation methods.
Results range from a new chicken arugula salad to adult beverages with trendy additions such as bacon and salted caramel. Hard Rock replaced queso on its nachos with two layers of mixed cheeses and added toppings such as smoked beef brisket. Other changes are more subtle, such as new brioche burger buns to replace potato ones.
Still, Hard Rock hasn't strayed too far from its roots: heaping portions of typical casual-dining chow.
Tony Roma's took a more radical approach with a rebranding experiment in Orlando. It essentially gutted its old menu, keeping its signature ribs but switching out almost everything else for trendier fare such as pulled pork tacos and fish with couscous.
That's risky, however, and unusual, experts say.
"It's about balancing what is familiar -- old favorites, signature items, with items that are new," said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of restaurant-research firm Technomic.
Experts say casual-dining restaurants are reinventing menus to fight a trend of declining traffic and sales. But other types of restaurants are making changes, too. Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A recently introduced grilled-chicken dishes marinated in sea salt, lemon, garlic and herbs and cooked on a new kind of grill meant to create the flavor of a backyard barbecue.
Such changes aren't always a recipe for success.
In late 2012, Red Lobster added more-affordable meals and many others that didn't feature fish. Sales at the seafood chain owned by Orlando-based Darden Restaurants have declined sharply since, diving 8.7 percent in its most recent quarter.
At Olive Garden, also owned by Darden, one lesson learned from Red Lobster is that "you can't forget that there's something for everyone on this menu," said Jay Spenchian, the Italian chain's executive vice president of marketing. "You have to have those messages to different audiences going simultaneously."
Olive Garden recently debuted more than 20 new tapas-style dishes meant to attract younger consumers. Grilled chicken with broth and vegetables appears on the lighter-fare section aimed at health-conscious diners. Several $9.99 pasta and sauce combinations are meant to appeal to customers on a budget.
To lure people with more adventurous tastes, Olive Garden added dishes with pesto and spicy diavolo sauces, which the chain had previously shied away from for fear of alienating core customers.
"We can't be afraid when we put something on the menu [that] some people aren't going to like it," Spenchian said. "Before, we were a little enamored with trying to get everyone to like something a little bit."
One of Olive Garden's competitors, Tampa-based Carrabba's Italian Grill, also recently added 15 new dishes for less than $15.
At Orlando-based Smokey Bones, Chief Executive Officer Chris Artinian said the goal of recent menu changes is to emphasize freshness. More sides and sauces are homemade. The restaurants are buying brisket with more fat and smoking it longer -- 14 hours -- for more tender meat and richer flavor. New items, meanwhile, include fried pickles, additional chicken-wing sauces and a margarita with Pop Rocks on the rim.
At the restaurants, some foods have disappeared -- and not just to make room for new ones.
The overall number of items at Tony Roma's dropped from 62 to 51 after the chain already dropped about 30 others a year and a half ago. Smokey Bones and Hard Rock both ended up with slightly fewer items than before.
Spenchian said Olive Garden's menu is about the same size but a few things could be deleted in the near future to make operations less complex.
That, too, is a common theme in the industry now.
At Smokey Bones, Artinian said, part of the revamp was "ensuring our menu has enough variety but also small enough that we do everything great."
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What's in, what's out
A sampling of what's new and what's gone in restaurant makeovers.
In: Calabrian chicken wings
Out: Venetian apricot chicken
In: The Pop Star, a martini with Pop Rocks around the rim
Out: Shot-glass desserts
Hard Rock Cafe
In: Chicken arugula salad
Out: Haystack salad
Tony Roma's Fire Grill & Lounge
In: Pretzel braid with cheese fondue
Out: Spinach artichoke dip
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