Chow Town

Applebee’s menu takes year in planning

I saw a headline from a press release recently and my interest was piqued.

Here’s how it read:

“Applebee’s Names Peter Czizek Vice President of Culinary and Menu Strategy

Veteran Chef to Lead Brand’s Continuing Evolution and Innovation”

Now, a new VP at a restaurant group like Applebee’s isn’t really big news, and I’m no huge fan of chain restaurants, but I thought this was interesting in that I had no idea how places like Applebee’s plan their culinary and menu strategies.

Year’s ago, when I was producing and hosting a new show for Public Broadcasting called Now You’re 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 everyone’s creations,then shouted out and wrote potential names for the dishes on a white board — what fun!

Applebee’s is the world’s 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 City’s 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 they’re interested in and would attract them to our restaurants,” Czizek, a 30-corporate culinary veteran who came to Applebee’s 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. It’s 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, that’s because it is. Applebee’s works on its menus a year in advance. So, the Flavors of Summer Menu Applebee’s rolled out at the beginning of May is actually the Ideas of Last Summer Menu.

There’s 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.

“It’s 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.”

Applebee’s does about a half dozen menu launches a year and serves a million meals a day. That’s a lot of spinach dip folks, and it’s Czizek’s job to make sure everything is as creative, appealing and available as possible.

Availability, in fact, in a company the size of Applebee’s with 2,000 restaurants in 49 states, 15 countries, and one United States territory is one of Czizek’s 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, he’s trying to answer that question by gazing into a crystal ball looking for answers from a year down the road.

So, if that’s the biggest challenge, what’s the biggest benefit? No doubt, it’s 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 we’re creating food they enjoy, and enjoy enough to come back again and again”

For Czizerk, that’s 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.