When you run dozens if not hundreds of restaurants, menu development is an aspect of the business you can’t afford to get wrong. FEJ was at the Casual Dining Show to hear how three of the biggest heavyweights — Wagamama, Pizza Express and Las Iguanas — deal with the challenge of creating innovative and profitable dishes, in a session chaired by chef and food consultant Jay Morjaria.
ON THE PANEL
– Glenn Evans, head of food development, Las Iguanas
– Jane Treasure, food and beverage director, Pizza Express
– Steven Mangleshot, executive chef, Wagamama
Talk us through the process of menu development for your business. How do you pick up a trend and then go through the steps of designing a menu?
Glenn Evans: Obviously with a very specific genre such as South American food, and that being a trend over the last few years, it is constantly growing anyway so it is a nice pull for us to reach into and research because there is so much out there. We can look at specific trends and flavours and some of the weird and wonderful and try and put that in, but our biggest focus is on more authentic ingredients and dishes where we can tell a story.
Jane Treasure: We absolutely start with the customer and how that trend may or may not be relevant to customers coming to Pizza Express and the needs they have. I think it is important with some of the up-and-coming trends to get your timing right because if you are too early customers might not be ready for it, if you’re too late you look like you are a copycat. And you have to make sure that you are true to your customer and your brand at the same time.
Steven Mangleshot: We try and take the ideas, initialise them and then start playing with them. The great thing about Wagamama is we have our Noodle Lab down in Soho, where we get to trial our innovation and our dishes out at the point of contact with customer, so we get great feedback on what is working and what is not working. Being in the playground of Asian food, we are trying to lead some of these trends as well and make things happen, so we actually instigate some of the great stuff that is going on in the menus.
Trying to work out the right time to present something or do something is tough — if we had a crystal ball it would be fantastic but we don’t so sometimes you have just got to try and push it out there. The great thing about the Noodle Lab is that we are trying out food six months before we actually want to launch it to the rest of the estate, so it gives us carte blanche to come up with the weird and wonderful ideas, the stupid ideas, the great ideas, the bad ideas, all the way from crockery and cutlery right through to food.
It sounds like a completely holistic approach — you have to look at absolutely everything including the non-food items?
Steven Mangleshot: Yes, I think you do. And especially with customers nowadays, they don’t just want to see food on the same old plate, they actually want to see innovation of plates and bowls and cutlery. You have to think about the surrounding area that they are sitting in, the ambience of the place and the authenticity to make it feel like a real special occasion.
How do you keep innovating without alienating?
Jane Treasure: You have to take a bit of a hunch and you always push as far as you can until someone says stop and then go a bit further, but then also just make sure that you keep an eye on what you are solving for — one of the biggest questions with innovation before we do anything, or I personally do anything, is what is the purpose of the work that I am doing? If I don’t know the answer it is probably going to end up somewhere in the bin, so if I know what I am doing it opens up the innovation and makes it so much easier. So I would ask any product developer before you innovate, what are you solving for? Are you solving because you want to go grab-and-go. Are you solving because the taste frankly isn’t good enough? Are you solving because you need to get more customers in? Once you know what you are solving for the innovation is a lot more fun.
Glenn Evans: Going back to the customer theme, it is absolutely true. We are not pushed into or directed to in terms of what we bring to the menu — we have got a genre where we can be first to market or try and educate the consumer and I think that is really important. We know some things are not going to sell as well but what we need to do is go back to that educational part and plant the seed on certain things and certain ingredients that consumers are not necessarily au fait with.
Steven Mangleshot: We started out very Japanese-inspired, now we are trying to be more Asian-inspired. If you travel around Asia there are so many great flavours and so much great food out there — I’d imagine it’s the same for Glenn in South America. All the different countries and all the different flavours that you can find help to bring different elements of our menu to life. You can’t stick in one place and say we are going to specifically do that because we would be shooting ourselves in the foot. We have got to make sure that we are trying not to cover everything, but use the great flavours from similar places.
There are some big occasions for foodservice operators, such as Valentine’s Day. Do you change your menus for specific days?
Steven Mangleshot: We don’t really change our menu for anything. We have menu changes twice a year. The great thing about Wagamama is that around Christmas time everybody has had enough turkey and enough roast dinners so they come for chicken katsu! We don’t follow the trends or have to change our menu for Christmas or specific events. Going back to Noodle Lab, we just try out food as and when we want to do it. We have crazy ideas and we can take the handcuffs off the development team and do what we want to do.
Jane Treasure: We have seasonal menus that tend to be more around Christmas and summer. I think it is important that customers have choice and variety and new reasons to visit. In the summer we see more vegetarian pizzas and at Christmas people get into the really indulgent pizzas. And you do have those individual days, so we have the heart-shaped dough balls for Valentine’s Day — a simple operational twist on something that we know that people love and it still tastes amazing. But we do need to be careful that they are not too gimmicky otherwise it undermines the quality of the message that you are trying to get out. Seasonal campaigns and seasonal food does bring variety and excitement and helps you try out new trends — and it is fun!
Glenn Evans: We don’t necessarily build a specific menu for specific occasions, but we are very lucky — or I am very lucky — that La Iguanas has got a fantastic cocktail offer as well. So it’s a lot easier to stretch and develop and implement quite quickly to promote those changes through the likes of social media and in-house with internal promotions.
Vegan is clearly a big trend. What is your strategy going forwards in terms of that?
Jane Treasure: We have always had a high amount of vegetarian pizzas — our founder was vegetarian and the margarita, our biggest selling pizza, is vegetarian. Vegan pizzas have come into the menu in the last couple of years, they do brilliantly for us and they have extended the reach of a pizza into new customers. Vegan is increasingly important to us, but it is also important that we stay tuned to the value and taste of the food. We spent a lot of time sourcing our vegan cheese, for example, to make sure we really focused on the taste of those pizzas. We have a dedicated vegan menu to make it easier to navigate and we are having a lot of fun, but we still sell a lot of American Hots!
Glenn Evans: We have always had designated menus for gluten-free and vegetarian specifically but in the last two years the plant-based vegan diet has exploded and it is not going to go away. It is going to get bigger and better. As Jane said, I think it has actually opened up the thought process of food development — it is making it more exciting to add flavour without just thinking of replacing protein with something else. We have got a great vegetarian following and I think it is just about expanding that now so that every time we develop a dish it is thinking of the vegan or plant-based thought process and then adding cheese and protein to it afterwards.
Steven Mangleshot: The great thing now is that you have got a lot of great suppliers out there bringing through new products and taste profiles that we are looking for. People are asking for this stuff, everyone is thinking about the planet and how they can do better, even if it is just going vegan for one day or one week. The great thing is people still want great food and that is where our job comes in to its own.
Once you have conducted your research, written your menu, completed your training packs and prepared your restaurants, what is your process for rolling out?
Glenn Evans: We are right in the middle of a roll-out now. We have just signed off our menu for spring-summer, so we are currently writing all the recipes and methods, pictures, step pictures and video recipes where they are slightly more complex. Then we will have three days where we bring down three different parts of the country and we’ll do a whole day of training. In the morning we will do the base recipes while the GMs are in a restaurant down the road seeing all the new cocktails and then they come over in the afternoon and we feed everybody all the new dishes. The head chefs will be able to see everything finished, see all the specs and question anything so if there are any concerns about operational steps in the recipe we can make final tweaks. We are there to listen and it is where we get their buy-in.
Jane Treasure: We have a process that is fairly well-established because we have to roll out to a lot of people, quickly. It is important, particularly when you are talking about innovation, that you have the processes in the right place for the right reasons, and when we are doing roll-out we are on it. It is very prescriptive, we know what we are doing and, again, we take on board any feedback. It should be an enjoyable process but we do need to make sure that we have got our house in order.
Finally, what is your number one tip when you are changing a menu or innovating a menu?
Steven Mangleshot: Don’t be afraid. Keep it simple sometimes and take the gloves off, don’t train yourself into an idea that is very one-sided, really open yourself up to all the possibilities. We get it wrong sometimes and you need to be told it’s not right, but I would say that no idea is a bad idea.
Jane Treasure: As I said earlier, know what your question is and what you are looking for. Also, ask the big question — don’t ask the simple, easy question that you know the answer to. My one at the moment is, ‘what’s the next margherita pizza?’ It is a big question — it is the biggest selling pizza on the planet in all of our competitors! So ask the big questions and don’t be afraid to ask them because you never know where you are going to end up. You can create some great products when you ask a big enough question.