Traveling the New Product Pipeline
Food companies are increasingly working with restaurant operators to create custom products. Understanding the process can help facilitate the customization partnership. Robert Danhi, a research chef and culinary consultant specializing in Asian cuisine, has developed menu products for both restaurants and suppliers. Danhi leads us through the seven R&D steps, which can take anywhere from a month to a year to complete.
Jot down ideas. To end up with one product, I make a list of 10 detailed ideas to discuss with the client.
Pare down the list. We zero in on three to five ideas that are different enough from each other. Then I take each item and develop several variations. A spring roll, for example, is broken into its components—wrapper, filling, sauce, etc. I provide a few options for each component to maximize flexibility.
Create a protocept. This is a physical sample that looks, feels and tastes like the product that will be delivered to a restaurant kitchen and/or set before a guest. After some trial and error, I usually present about five protecepts for evaluation. The feedback from taste testers ranges from “I want the sauce a little thicker” to “it’s too messy to eat out of hand.”
Make up benchtop samples. Working from the accepted protocepts, I use ingredients that can be sourced in quantity from approved suppliers. For example, instead of using an 8-ounce jar of sauce, I’ll purchase the sauce in foodservice-size pails like a manufacturer would use in a plant.
Scale up. The product is brought to the manufacturer’s floor for a plant trial with the restaurant team in attendance. Even though a lot of time and money is invested in benchtop samples, the reality is that the window of acceptability may change once you scale up production.
Go into test market. Plant trial samples are sent to one or more restaurant locations to make sure they work operationally in the kitchen and front of house.
Full scale-up. The product goes into full production run and is put on the menu. Although this is the final step in R&D, the process is not over. Both manufacturer and operator should revisit the product after it’s up and running on the menu to see how it’s functioning. More tweaking is sometimes needed.
Many consider restaurants to be on the cutting edge of eating trends, but when it comes to new products, retail often leads the charge. Take the case of trans fat-free oils, notes Suzy Badaracco, president of Culinary Tides, a trends forecasting company based in Portland, Oregon. They first appeared on supermarket shelves, and it wasn’t until restaurants jumped on their suppliers to get the oils and shortenings that they were produced in large enough quantities.
Mintel Menu Insights in Chicago tracks both retail and foodservice trends. These are the numbers for U.S. product launches between January and September, 2007.
Sauces & seasonings: 1,378
Meals (Entrees): 1,008
Processed fish, meat & egg products: 740
Desserts & ice cream: 657
Total number of new products: 11,748
Cuisines to watch
American Express MarketBrief reports that Italian, Chinese and Mexican remain the top three preferences among the dining public. But other global cuisines are gaining favor. More diners named Indian and Sushi as appealing choices in 2007 vs. 2006. And when asked what they would like to try in the future, Caribbean, Moroccan and Spanish were mentioned most often.