I saw a headline from a press release recently and my interest was piqued.
By DAVE ECKERT
Heres how it read:
Applebees Names Peter Czizek Vice President of Culinary and Menu Strategy
Veteran Chef to Lead Brands Continuing Evolution and Innovation
Now, a new VP at a restaurant group like Applebees isnt really big news, and Im no huge fan of chain restaurants, but I thought this was interesting in that I had no idea how places like Applebees plan their culinary and menu strategies.
Years ago, when I was producing and hosting a new show for Public Broadcasting called Now Youre Cookin, I got a behind-the-scenes look at recipe development with Double Tree Hotels, and I found it fascinating.
They gathered a number of chefs into a corporate kitchen over a couple of days, cooked up a storm, tasted everyones creations,then shouted out and wrote potential names for the dishes on a white board what fun!
Applebees is the worlds largest casual dining chain, so the process for them has to be infinitely more complex. And what better than an inside look at the creative side of Kansas Citys own neighborhood restaurant chain. So, I gave Czizek a call to ask him how it all works.
It was, as I suspected, much more complex, even scientific.
It all begins with our marketing team with consumer insights, talking to guests and finding out what theyre interested in and would attract them to our restaurants, Czizek, a 30-corporate culinary veteran who came to Applebees from Dave and Buster s told me.
We do surveys and focus groups, the results of which the marketing folks give to the chef team in fairly broad terms. Its up to us to take ideas or terms like fresh or healthy, and foods like strawberries, blueberries, green beans, or spinach and turn them into not just dishes, but menu items, Czizek continued.
If it sounds complicated and involved, thats because it is. Applebees works on its menus a year in advance. So, the Flavors of Summer Menu Applebees rolled out at the beginning of May is actually the Ideas of Last Summer Menu.
Theres also something I would call a version of survival of the fittest. The chefs team, which Czizek heads, might create some 200-dishes a year, but only 20 or so actually make it on a menu.
There are four corporate chefs along with Czizek charged with turning rather vague concepts into tangible, tantalizing, and popular menu items. And, make no mistake about it, the goal is to sell the dishes, not make tasty, unpopular, ones.
Its not about developing dishes with your own palette in mind, Czizek said. You have to be in tune with your guests and what they want.
Applebees does about a half dozen menu launches a year and serves a million meals a day. Thats a lot of spinach dip folks, and its Czizeks job to make sure everything is as creative, appealing and available as possible.
Availability, in fact, in a company the size of Applebees with 2,000 restaurants in 49 states, 15 countries, and one United States territory is one of Czizeks biggest challenges.
We have to make sure we find enough product for our large system, Cziek said. We might be able to come up with some really great items, but are they sustainable? Will there be enough product to buy?
And, keep in mind, hes trying to answer that question by gazing into a crystal ball looking for answers from a year down the road.
So, if thats the biggest challenge, whats the biggest benefit? No doubt, its customer satisfaction.
We serve a ton of meals every day, and many of those customers are repeat customers. I take a great deal of satisfaction that were creating food they enjoy, and enjoy enough to come back again and again
For Czizerk, thats eatin good in the neighborhood.
Dave Eckert is the producer and host of Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert, which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons, or nearly 300 half-hour episodes produced on six continents. Eckert is also an avid wine collector and aficionado, having amassed a personal wine cellar of some 2,000 bottles.