What is in this article?:
- Restaurant chains experiment with sauces to add flavor
- Intensifying a brand identity
Chains are discovering that sauces are a cost-effective way to innovate on flavor.
Intensifying a brand identity
Before Chili’s rolled out its new Pick-a-Pepper limited-time menu to its more than 1,500 locations on Monday, its corporate chefs were trying to accentuate the versatility of different kinds of chile pepper, from the smokiness of chipotle to the heat of red pepper.
Senior director of culinary innovation and executiveDarryl Mickler said the casual-dining brand explored several applications for chile peppers. “But the best representation of what you can really do with chiles and can control is in a sauce base,” he said. “You don’t want to necessarily have all of the flavor in the proteins, because you want to keep things flexible when guests want to make alterations or maybe pull back on some heat in a dish. This easily lets guests control that, so they can go all in on some flavor if they want.”
He added that the menu applies new flavors to standard proteins for which Chili’s is known: Smoky ChipotleFajitas; Santa Cruz Steak, served over fire-roasted corn salsa with tangy verde sauce and jalapeño-Cheddar mashed potatoes; Roasted Red Pepper Grilled Chicken; Chipotle Salmon; Spicy Grilled Shrimp Tacos, with a spicy chile-lime sauce; and Lighter Choices Sweet & Spicy Chicken, with a habanero-and-sweet-orange glaze.
Starting with familiar proteins let Chili’s get adventurous with its sauces while still keeping the products affordable, Mickler said, noting that the steak, chicken fajitas and grilled chicken products also are options for the $20 Dinner for Two.
“Value is a big piece,” he said. “We could bring in Wagyu beef or other proteins with less of a value component, but that might be too much risk for guests looking to try something new. We invest in flavors, but we don’t require guests to invest a lot more money than they’re able to.”
Wing Zone, meanwhile, has spent much of the past year trying to get its guests more invested in its flavors, wrapping up a promotion earlier in 2012 in which fans got to rename all 17 of the nearly 100-unit chain’s sauces.
Starting in August 2011, the brand also began promoting its Flavor Fuze, which lets guests put any wing sauce on non-wing items. The longstanding practice had not been advertised until that point. The program “continues to gain ground,” and the number of Flavor Fuze orders has increased 50 percent over a year earlier, said cofounder and chief executive Matt Friedman.
“Guests are ordering more of our products flavored,” he said. “Wings are kind of a given, but we’re talking salads, burgers, shrimp and chicken tenders. My goal is that Flavor Fuze becomes part of our brand recognition.”
He conceded that Flavor Fuze has not driven a spike in orders of just non-wing items, but he noted that same-store sales are running 7 percent ahead of the year earlier through 2012, indicating that the practice has elevated perceptions of flavors throughout the whole menu. Sales of fries have stood out as the exceptional improver since the promotion of Flavor Fuze, he said.
In October, the chain will introduce a contest on Facebook where fans can suggest the next wing sauce flavor and vote for the winner in a “Flavor Playoffs” bracket through November.
“For a growing system like ours, we have to look at what’s easy to implement, so new flavors are our main focus going forward,” Friedman said. “Our whole calendar and marketing strategy are about seasonal flavors and limited-time offerings.”