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Spinning limited-time offers and events into a research opportunity

The noncommercial side of foodservice rarely has a bloated menu R&D budget like, oh, say, McDonald’s or Taco Bell. So operators are forced to get crafty. Many are shirking the sometimes unreliable focus group for a broader sample size. Check out how a few operators are gauging consumer interest with limited-time offers and special events.

mac cheese dishes

LTOs present a concrete expression of consumer sentiment. Ohio State University rolls out hundreds of LTOs each semester, and then scans the sales numbers to figure out which items won over guests. For the University of Missouri’s retail operations, limited-time offers are essential. “Limited-time offers are the primary driver to keep people coming back and to test future menu items,” says Michael Wuest, the marketing manager for campus dining services. For instance, a surge in sales of a Buffalo mac-and-cheese special earned the dish a regular slot on the menu. Wuest says the university keeps an eye on sales metrics; if a limited-time item doesn’t do well within the first week or two, the dining team will yank it off the menu.

lettuce wraps

At least once a month, the University of Missouri dining team sponsors a Culinary Discovery Series event, which often takes place in the University’s open development kitchen. Not only do the events serve to engage and educate the campus’s millennial and Gen Z demos, but also to test out new menu items on their captive audience, says Wuest. Early this month, around 35 students attended the Porkapalooza, sponsored by the National Pork Board, teaching students about different cuts of pork. Wuest says he could see a few of the cuts making it into a lettuce wrap at one of the dining halls.

mushroom pizza

At the University of Illinois, the dining team hosted a rotating event called Sampled: A Pop-Up Testaurant this spring. Serving up tastings of healthy fare—such as peanut butter-banana protein shakes, wild mushroom pizzas and Oaxaca burgers—the dining event made pit stops at different dining halls and helped celebrate nutrition while gathering real-time feedback on potential menu items.

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