Restaurants Still Drive Culinary Excitement, Experimentation

How often do you make a donut burger at home, or perhaps craft a mac and cheese donut?

Despite the lines at places such as Glam Doll Donuts in Minneapolis for that mac and cheese donut or the extreme demand for a venison steak sandwich at Arby’s, people don’t make this stuff at home.

According to Nancy Kruse, principal of The Kruse Company and restaurant analyst and writer, that’s a key advantage for restaurants.

"Restaurants have an unfair competitive advantage, play that card all the time, it’s your key asset," said Kruse at the 2017 MUFSO conference. "Restaurants are and will remain the entry of new flavors."

She said during her annual State of the Plate panel at MUFSO that Netflix has made it "sexy to stay at home" and grocery stores have an ever-wider price gap for raw and prepared food. That means restaurants have a lot more work to get people out of the pajamas and off the couch.

Sublime Doughnuts actually encourages pajama-clad customers for its cereal-topped donut dubbed the Saturday Cereal Surprise that brings in long lines on weekend mornings. And since the company only buys so much cereal, there is an element of scarcity that gets people up and out for their Instagram-able donuts.

There’s a lot of creativity in the donut players. In Minneapolis, there’s the mac-and-cheese donut—deep-fried macaroni and cheese in the shape of a donut with a side of chili. It’s certainly not something that drives up frequency, but keeps a steady stream of experimental foodies coming in. Another donut player—Datz’s Doughnuts in Tampa, Florida—has an ice cream sundae donut with a scoop of ice cream in a donut with a closed bottom.

"That’s a competitive advantage, you’re not getting this at a grocery store," said Kruse.

But it’s not just the odd, one-time indulgences that are driving traffic. Something like Burger King’s Fruit Loop shake bring shake consumers back for a unique, high margin LTO. And it makes for some free marketing on social media and word of mouth back at the office.

"You’re building buzz, you're building traffic," said Kruse. "Now they’re going back to the well with Fruity Pebbles."

Unique proteins have really helped drive traffic as well and as consumer continue to experiment with global proteins like lamb or boar, which are driving experimentation and few are cooking these proteins at home. Americans eat just one pound of lamb on average, compared to 60 pounds of chicken and beef. But a very local protein made waves at Arby’s and the brand’s laser focus on meats has transformed it.

"They’ve done a full turnaround with one word: meat, in all capital letters," said Kruse.

Venison was the most viral hit by far. Lines were out the door at the only 17 Arby's locations where venison sandwiches were available and they sold out almost immediately. They, too, are going back to the well with promotions around pork belly and even tried to get a bite of the Game of Thrones success with a turkey leg promotion. And not to be left behind in the sweets department, the brand also added shakes made with the viral ingredient cookie butter.

It’s easier than ever to stay home, so restaurants need to find a reason for customers to come out and programs like these show that one way to get everyone off the couch is a hearty dose of FOMO (fear of missing out). Restaurants need to have a little fun and get creative, because the competition certainly is.

"It’s just going to get crazier and crazier, there’s no end in sight now," said Kruse. 

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