Restaurants Get Customers to Grade New Menu Items

Test kitchens in North Texas help chains put new food to the test

By Kevin Cokely
|  Monday, Nov 29, 2010  |  Updated 11:29 PM CDT
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National chains are testing new menu items in <a title=North Texas." />

Kevin Cokely, NBCDFW.com

National chains are testing new menu items in North Texas.

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Check the menu carefully the next time you dine out at your favorite restaurant chain. You may spot a few things you've never seen before -- and won't see anywhere else.

Restaurants come up with new menu items all the time and test them out on customers.

"A restaurant may not necessarily have specials or limited-time offers or things of that nature, and all of a sudden, here comes something onto the menu, and you've got a manager who's asking, 'What did you think about it?' You may have a little survey card -- 'Tell me about these five or six or seven things,'" said Kevin Higar, a North Texas-based restaurant consultant with Technomic in Chicago.

Take Boston's The Gourmet Pizza at Interstate 635 and MacArthur Boulevard.

The Canadian-based chain's U.S. headquarters is in Irving, and the flagship restaurant is also the company's test kitchen.

"I love new things," regular customer Cathy Marchain said. "And I love to eat, so new food is always big on my list. It's nice to be able to come and try something new."

The test kitchen recently cooked up everything from pork chops to calamari, flat breads and seasonal desserts.

"Almost every time they come in, they'll see something new and different," said Bill Hancox, Boston's vice president of food services. "We'll go up to them and actually ask them for their feedback on a specific item, or even we'll drop them off to them and say, 'Would you like to try that?'"

At the Wingstop on Northwest Highway in Garland, customers can already check out Coca Cola's new freestyle fountain dispenser, which features more than a hundred different flavors.

"It really gives the customers an opportunity to say, 'I can customize. I can have this any way I want it,'" Higar said.

Beginning Jan. 1, the Garland store and two Wingstops in Frisco will test a new dessert developed at the company's test kitchen at Wingstop's corporate office in Richardson.

"It all begins here," said Sean Murphy, Wingstop's head of R&D. "It all begins here up in our heads, but the idea to fruition has to begin here."

Right now, Murphy is working on a chicken salad for Wingstop locations, and stores in Houston are already testing a chicken sandwich.

Like Wingstop, many other restaurant chains -- including T.G.I. Friday's, Applebee's, Chili's, and Cici's Pizza -- also have test kitchens right inside their corporate headquarters.

"First and foremost, you use a test kitchen to make sure this is an item that the customer is going to want," Higar said. "You also want to make sure that its something the kitchen can execute."

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