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Small Plates + Bold Flavors = Big Business

Menu Q&A; with Houlihan’s Jen Gulvik and Tilted Kilt’s Kristin Cronhardt

FoodChannelPro

By Ellen Koteff, editor-in-chief, FoodChannelPRO

Houlihan’s Restaurants recently came out with a new menu only of small plates, and several of the items are boldly flavored. The chain’s decision to take the deep dive into the bold snack arena makes the vice president of marketing, Jen Gulvik, a perfect observer of the trend that has such a foothold in foodservice today.

Do you think the changing demographics play into the public’s desire for bold flavors?
Yes. Millennials—who are young adults today starting their own families—have always had internet connectivity and phones on their hips, giving them not just connectivity but a global awareness via that access, that generations before them never had growing up. This kind of constant, mass exposure and awareness of people, products, music, and lifestyles other than their own has made cultures that previous generations considered ‘exotic’ or ‘foreign’ seem familiar and everyday. You can see that influencing food, music, fashion and art today. We have become a global marketplace, and the flavors and cuisine of cultures over the world are melding together because of this access.

Millennials feel comfortable ordering sushi out of street vending machines, and their demand for different flavors has a ‘trickle up’ effect on their parents, the baby boomers. The sheer mass of those two consumer segments alone, with total familiarity and interest in unique flavors, means we are going to see a lot more demand for bold cuisine.

Why do you think bold flavors are finding their way into more snack items [at restaurants]?
With a snack or a small plate, people are more likely to try out a ‘new’ flavor or ingredient that they wouldn’t usually order. There’s less risk, due to the low price points that come with smaller portions and food cost, so consumers feel ok trying it out. Our guests love that they can try several different things in one meal setting. You’re likely not going to try a new entrée and order another one if you don’t like it, but with snacks or small plates, you can easily do so with only $3 or $5 at stake, for example.

Houlihan’s goat cheese-artichoke poppers

How bold do you think the eating-out public is willing to go when it comes to flavoring?
Consumers’ palates are daring, especially if they are able to ‘taste-test’ a unique flavor, and that’s something we kept in mind when building Houlihan’s small plates menu. I think the trend will only grow, as newer generations come of age with even more exposure and access to global influences and cuisines.

How important are focus groups when it comes to creating boldly flavored menu items?
It’s critical to gather some sort of customer feedback, particularly when experimenting with new flavors and ingredients. When we were testing our small plates menu, we collected candid feedback from our guests through our own social-networking site, that’s essentially an ongoing focus group comprised of our brand ambassadors (our HouliFans). Their feedback impacted how some menu items were altered before we rolled the small plates menu to the rest of locations.

Do you think consumers are more likely to try bolder items when they are offered in small plates or snack sized?
Definitely. We have seen this trend at our restaurants with people being far more adventurous with our small plates menu than our traditional menu items. Again, because the risk is low with smaller price points. Small plates are not going away. According to the National Restaurant Association’s Tableservice Restaurant Trends Report, smaller portions were named among the top 10 food trends in 2009. While a few restaurants have added small plates as an extension of their appetizer menus, no other national casual-dining concept has embraced the small plate concept with a complete menu of options along with the service and back-of-house procedures that accompany flexible dining. Millennials need for socializing and grazing while dining, boomers need for smaller portions in their pursuit of health & wellness, and all consumer segments’ demand for value mean small meals & snack dining are not going away.

Tempe, Ariz.-based Tilted Kilt, a chain of about 35 sports bars with unique Celtic décor, humorous limericks and sexy cast members, likewise has bold snack flavors all over its menu. Kristin Cronhardt, vice president of marketing for Tilted Kilt, took time to answer a few questions on the bold snack trend for FoodChannel PRO.

Do you think the changing demographics play into the public’s desire for bold flavors?
Absolutely, we think as the American culture diversifies our guests flavor profile broadens as well. Consumers are exposed to more cultures and more unique spices and flavors which can be used to enhance our current menu and in our new product development.

Why do you think bold flavors are finding their way into more snack items at restaurants?
Snacks are a great way for consumers to sample new flavors without having to commit to an entire entrée. They can get a taste of a new items/flavor for a relatively low cost and there isn’t as much risk.

What are the operational advantages of hitting it big with the snack daypart?
For us we really think of Happy Hour and Late Night as the primary snack opportunity. If we can get guests who come in for a drink to add a snack item purchase to their order we can increase sales.

How bold do you think the eating-out public is willing to go when it comes to flavoring?
We think they will go pretty far. As long as you don’t go too over the top with spicy heat guests will give things a try.

How important are focus groups when it comes to creating boldly flavored menu items?
We haven’t used a lot of traditional focus groups to date but do test our new product ideas on guests in our corporate pub to see what their feedback is and see if it is an item that has merit to move forward with.

Do you think menus will get more or less adventurous when it comes to bold flavors? I think definitely more adventurous. Consumers get bored quickly and even if they don’t try a new item they seem to be attracted to restaurants that show product ingenuity. It seems like maybe a psychological draw that you are creating something new and staying current with the times, which is attractive to guests.

Do you think consumers are more likely to try bolder items when they are offered in small plates or snack sized?
Yes, because they can get a taste of the item versus committing to an entire meal.

Do you think there still is enough financial opportunity to justify further innovation in the snack daypart?
Absolutely, as long as you have guests coming in to your restaurant testing new items and flavors, it makes sense to see if you can find a big hit. You have to keep being innovative.