As operators wrestle with tightening margins, many have found that innovative new menu items can be dependable catalysts for driving profits across all industry segments and dayparts. Well-structured rollouts that feature versatile ingredients can help spur customer enthusiasm, solidify restaurant operations and save on costs.

Savvy restaurateurs have figured this out and continually strive to move forward with opportunistic LTOs and menu additions that are not only flavorful but make good fiscal sense. But being opportunistic requires a steady focus, thorough research and development, and utilization of all tools at the company’s disposal.

The introduction of new menu items provides an opportunity to remove poor sellers while freshening up the menu, says Jim Kuhn, chief executive of Dallas-based Genghis Grill, a casual-dining chain known for its sizzling  build your own stir-fry bowl. But he also stresses the rollouts should be done strategically.

“It is important to spread the workload equally among the line equipment and the personnel,” Kuhn says. “The goal is to avoid increasing or decreasing the workload. Menu updates should be [operationally] seamless.”

Andrew Freeman, president of Andrew Freeman & Co., a San Francisco-based restaurant and hospitality consultant, also points out that maximum product utilization can make a big difference when developing new menu selections.

To that end, smart operators can look at whole ingredient utilization and make the menus seem abundant with dips, spreads, more salads and  shareable items.

Tampa Maid Foods based in Lakeland, Fla., is a company that strives to help clients boost profits through smart ingredient utilization. The versatility of the products the company offers to restaurant operators assists in diversifying menu options while utilizing the same main ingredient.

Mike Grimes, who is corporate chef and manager of culinary services for Tampa Maid Foods, agrees that “versatility of menu items cross-utilizing food product drives profit. One product, such as our new Shrimp Burger mix, can be used for sliders, tacos, shrimp po’boy sandwiches or hand formed into meatball sized portions, rolled in breadcrumbs, fried and served with dipping sauces. And that’s only one example.”

Maeve Webster, trends analyst and president of Menu Matters, says restaurant operators could do a better job of cross-utilizing product.

“I absolutely believe operators often don't maximize the ingredients they are pulling into their operation across multiple menu parts and item types to create new and interesting options,” she says. Often the thought is to add new ingredients or completely different items, but that can both backfire and create issues with stock management including waste.

There's also the idea of creating value, in part through a strong identity that can get watered down if new menu items are added without a lot of thought to their role within the broader brand and menu.

To that end Franck LeClerc, owner of Au Bon Repas Restaurant Group in San Francisco, which includes Gitane, Gaspar Brasserie and Café Claude, agrees planning is essential — right down to the placement of a new item on the menu. “We have to maximize profitability, and we use menu layout to try to drive our customers to choose certain items,” he says.

Those items include small plates or tapas selections and a side of mashed potatoes or French fries. “We’re trying to drive customers to order those. We usually put them in the upper left position on the page,” LeClerc says. “We see the most velocity is going to be there or the bottom right. We’re always trying to figure out what we can do to drive business in order to maintain our food costs.”

Michael Mabry, the chief operating officer of Plano, Texas-based MOOYAH Burgers, Fries & Shakes, says successful menu rollouts are a balancing act. The idea is to drive trial, and to do that we need something that is unique to the guests, he says. On the flip side, the offer and margins must be addressed. To be successful with new menu items overall, you need a balance of margins and value to the guest.

Mabry also says the rollouts have to complement existing operations.

Grimes of Tampa Maid Foods, agrees. A chef or an operator never wants to suggest a menu item that would require six new SKUs, he points out. That’s why it is important for suppliers and operators to have trust, open communications and to work together toward the same goal. Suppliers can only meet the needs of which they are aware.

Famous Toastery’s chief executive and co-founder, Robert Maynard, notes that margins and menu complement are indeed crucial, but sometimes taking a risk can also bring dividends.

“Ninety percent of the time you have to take margins into consideration. But that other 10 percent is a chance for a brand to try something new and different, and that’s what Famous Toastery did,” he says.

The company decided to fly in fresh Maine lobster, and it turned out to be a big deal to offer a product that is so fresh. And because fresh Maine lobster isn't regularly available in the Carolinas, it makes people want to order that special menu item. “We then tightened up margins, and we took a chance, but it was something that helped us a great deal.”

Value-added products are another way operators have found to save labor costs on menu rollouts.

“Operations that use a lot of produce need to talk directly to their suppliers to see if they can get value-added produce that reduces labor costs associated with prep,” says Amy Myrdal Miller, founder and president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting.

Grimes agrees, saying, “When a restaurateur purchases a value-added  product,  the cost of breading products in the  back of the house can be absorbed by the supplier without sacrificing what customers enjoy.”

By offering such value-added products, suppliers can help operators reduce costs and waste, as well as save time in the kitchen. For example, Tampa Maid offers a range of versatile and flavorful items including its new Veggie Patty mix  which can be used as a veggie burger, an appetizer veggie fritter, or numerous other vegetarian applications.

For operators it’s especially noteworthy that products such as these can be employed in multiple ways across different dayparts and in a variety of recipes. It’s also important that the item is easy to prepare. Products like Tampa Maid’s Beer Cheese Shrimp Jammers® can be served with a dipping sauce or as a part of a main dish. Cook time is under three minutes which saves prep time, reduces waste and in turn adds more profit to the bottom line.

And in this day of “foodie” restaurant guests it is imperative that operators stay ahead of trends and help staff to do the same.

Consumers know more than ever before about new food items and food trends, reports Christine Couvelier, global culinary trendologist and president of Culinary Concierge. “Innovative restaurant operators and creative chefs must stay ahead of the trends to keep consumers coming back for more.”

Couvelier says 2016 is full of great tastes that can be translated into exciting menu items. She points to popular trends as a likely place for chefs to experiment, citing such examples as sweet and heat, which can combine such flavors as sriracha and maple syrup; unique twists on hummus like black bean or edamame with roasted red peppers; and vegetables as the star of the plate.

Clearly, savvy operators understand that on-trend menu items that don’t drive up costs can help them remain successful.

As Tampa Maid’s Grimes points out, “You can’t remain stagnant in any industry but particularly not in foodservice where there is such a fine balance between people’s desire for familiarity and their desire for adventure and new experiences.”