Casual-dining burger specialist Red Robin Gourmet Burgers recently expanded its menu development team, not only with two new culinary experts, but also with the 464-unit’s first master mixologist, Donna Ruch.
Ruch joins Red Robin from T.G.I. Friday’s, where she had held a variety of positions since she joined in 2006, including her most recent role as project manager for its bar and beverage innovation program.
She recently discussed her new job at Red Robin with Nation’s Restaurant News.
Why do you think Red Robin decided to create your position?
We wanted to reclaim our heritage of mixology. I think there are a lot of local places now that are doing a lot of creative things that you could only find in casual dining [chains] at one time.
Our customers are really smart about food and drinks these days, and I think it’s important for Red Robin to acknowledge that and make sure we’re delivering that to the guests.
But we still have to be fun as we create drinks and drink platforms. That’s part of Red Robin’s culture. I mean — we have a drink called Flat on your Beak [made with rum, sloe gin, orange juice, sour mix and grenadine].
What are you working on now?
I just spent about an hour on the phone with one of our regional directors in southern California, just really trying to understand the opportunities that we have out there. I want to make sure that we’re doing the right thing, making the right changes and doing them right the first time, for our guests as well as our team members.
Right now I’m looking at our lemonades and milkshakes — those categories that I think will really resonate with our customers.
I love the concept of adult shakes. It fits into what we do: It’s fun, and it’s milkshakes. And what goes better with a burger?
And we obviously own freckled lemonade [Red Robin’s signature strawberry-flavored nonalcoholic beverage]. It would be great to do a whole line of lemonades with great flavors — sweet flavors and savory. I think another fruit lemonade would be great.
I think you’re going to see a lot of high quality ingredients and fresh ingredients in our drinks.
Are there operational challenges to using fresh ingredients?
You can develop a really good drink, but if you can’t deliver it 100 percent, across all units, then it’s not a good drink. I think I’m good at that operational piece. We’ll make sure that there are not any pitfalls in those recipes.
What’s the most time-consuming part of beverage development?
Sensory testing with consumers to get their feedback, and then operationalizing the drink.
What time frame do you have for rolling out new drinks at Red Robin?
You’ll definitely see some changes by the end of the year or early next year.