When Chili’s Grill & Bar leveraged the potential of its Kitchen of the Future retrofit against consumer insights, it paved the road to menu expansion. The result: a groundbreaking trio of Flatbreads — in Margherita, Chipotle Chicken and California Grilled Chicken varieties — that have won the 2014 MenuMasters award for Best New Menu Item.

Research found that flatbreads “were really resonating with our guests and also with other consumers who were not our guests, but could potentially be,” said Claudia Schaefer, vice president of food and beverage development at Chili’s, which is owned by Brinker International Inc.

"We knew that along with rolling out this great kitchen equipment, we had to have great foods to accompany it, too,” Schaefer said. On the other hand, without the speed and precision of new cooking gear, such as the impinger conveyor oven and combi oven, she noted, “we probably wouldn’t have flatbreads on the menu.”

A vital step in the research and development process was making the flatbread concept “ownable” for Chili’s, she added.

“We thought if we could apply our flavor DNA to it, we could make it very unique to us,” Schaefer said.

The Chipotle Chicken Flatbread does that by pairing grilled chile-rubbed chicken with chopped cilantro, house-made pico de gallo and chipotle pesto. The California Grilled Chicken Flatbread sports the double appeal of bacon and avocado, two of today’s hottest ingredients. The Margherita Flatbread, topped with Monterey Jack and mozzarella cheeses, roasted garlic aïoli, fresh tomatoes, and cilantro-ranch pesto, is probably the most recognizable of the flatbreads for pizza-loving patrons.

“We get such great food quality ratings on these products, it is amazing,” Schaefer said. “It is selling very well for us.”

What makes Chili's Flatbreads a winner:

1. Cheese: Monterey Jack, a go-to cheese in Southwest cooking is paired with familiar mozzarella and Cheddar in the Chipotle Chicken Flatbread. “It’s something we play around with a lot because it has a very unique flavor,” Claudia Schaefer, vice president of food and beverage development, said.

2. Chipotle pesto: House-made chipotle pesto adds a Southwest note to the chipotle Chicken Flatbread. “It really matches our brand, and it is very ownable for us,” Schaefer said.

3. Crust: Thin-crust flatbreads cut into triangles are well-suited for sharing and snacking – key trends of the moment – and are perceived by calorie- or carb-conscious patrons.

4. Chicken: The widely popular protein keeps food cost low, and research shows it is what patrons want. “If customers wanted a Steak Flatbread, you probably would have seen that on the menu,” Schaefer said.

5. Avocado: “It’s very Southwest and also on eof those products consumers are loving,” Schaefer said. “It’s also a great ingredient for communicating freshness.