Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar introduced its first farm-to-table-inspired location-specific dish: the Grilled Vidalia Onion Sirloin.

The promotional menu item, which Applebee’s is offering through Aug. 17 at a price determined by each franchisee, features a seven-ounce steak topped with a grilled Vidalia onion and served with garlic spinach, mashed red-skin potatoes and a Hawaiian-style barbecue sauce.

The Kansas City, Mo.-based 2,000-unit casual-dining division of DineEquity Inc. estimated it will use as much as 23,000 pounds per week of the onions, which are grown in a defined 20-county area near Vidalia, Ga. by only 100 registered farmers and known for their sweetness because of the low amount of sulfur in the region’s soil. An Applebee’s spokesperson said the brand expects to sell about 14,000 of the grilled sirloins per day.


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The Vidalia onion was named Georgia’s official state vegetable in 1990. Applebee’s has a special connection to Georgia, as Bill Palmer and T.J. Palmer opened the original T.J. Applebee's Rx for Edibles & Elixirs in Atlanta in 1980.

Jessica James, one of Applebee’s executive chefs who developed the item, answered a few questions about how the Applebee’s International Inc. culinary team came up with the idea and executed it through the supply chain.

When conceptualizing a menu item with a location-specific ingredient, what are the first steps a large restaurant chain must take?

Sales forecasts help us determine if there is enough supply of the ingredient for us to source.
 
How long was the planning process for this promotion? How long will it be offered?

It’s taken about six months to plan for the Grilled Vidalia Onion Sirloin. The dish is available beginning May 5 for our Fresh Flavors campaign, and it will be featured throughout the summer until Aug. 17, a total of 15 weeks.

How are you assuring customers they are getting a Vidalia onion and not an ordinary onion?

Our culinary, quality-assurance and supply chain teams have worked closely to ensure we are sourcing USDA-specified certified Vidalia Sweet Onions. This specification is communicated to all of our restaurant general managers and our distribution centers to ensure the guest is, in fact, receiving a Vidalia onion when they order the Grilled Vidalia Onion Sirloin.



Where did the idea originate?

This dish was inspired by the classic American steakhouse. The idea of using a Vidalia onion came to our culinary team when we were thinking about how the flavors of each ingredient in the dish play off of each other. The sauce is a little savory and spicy, the spinach has a fresh, bright flavor, the potatoes add great crispy texture and the steak has a savory charred note. The Vidalia onion balances the dish perfectly with its sweetness.

How many dishes on the menu will offer the Vidalia onion?

Just one.

What steps did you take to assure an ample supply?

We work closely with our quality-assurance and supply-chain teams to first ensure there’s enough supply for our 15-week campaign in more than 1,800 domestic restaurants, based on sales forecasts. Then we leveraged the USDA specification for certified Vidalia Sweet Onions to ensure our restaurants are purchasing and receiving the right volume of Vidalia onions. We also have a thorough understanding of exactly which farms are genuine Vidalia growers. Finally, our logistics team has put a lot of planning and resources behind getting the onions from the 20 counties in Georgia, where they’re grown and harvested, to our restaurants across the country in time for Monday’s big debut.

How are the onions distributed? Through usual distributors or a special supply chain set-up?

Because of the size of the Applebee’s brand, we have numerous produce distribution centers set up across the country. For the Vidalia onion, we have been able to utilize our typical produce distribution network.

What other regional-specific products might work in a similar farm-to-table offering?

This summer, we are also featuring wild arugula in our new Strawberry and Avocado Salad. The arugula is only grown in California. Typically, however, we don’t feature regional-specific products because most fresh produce we source comes from more than one region.  Sourcing from multiple regions helps ensure adequate supply.

What are you most mindful of in training individual restaurant teams?

Our training team does an incredible job of setting our franchisees and their restaurant teams up for success when rolling out new products like the Grilled Vidalia Onion Sirloin. They create printed materials, training videos, handling instructions, specific talking points for the front of the house, and they help us communicate out the USDA Vidalia Onion specification.

This story has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: May 5, 2014
  An earlier version of this story misstated the amount of onions Applebee's expects to use. The company estimated it will use as much as 23,000 pounds of Vidalia onions per week.

Contact Ron Ruggless at ronald.ruggless@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless