Impacting the Food Industry Through Curiosity and Culinary Innovation

Impacting the Food Industry Through Curiosity and Culinary Innovation

Everyone has their favourite meal from a Recipe brand. Maybe it’s a classic Swiss Chalet Quarter Chicken Dinner. Maybe it’s Kelseys’ famous Four Cheese Spinach Dip. Or maybe – just maybe – it’s something that only comes around at special times of the year. This comes as no surprise, though, as “Recipe has a diversity of restaurant brands and many flavours and styles to match,” says Chef John Humphreys, Senior Director of Culinary Innovation at Recipe.

In a fast-paced industry like food and hospitality, keeping meals exciting and fresh are equally as important as staying true to the classics. This often means experimenting with flavours or ingredients to bring menus to life. Chef John says brands seeking a premium and engaging experience for their guests are more likely to go in this direction. Brands with a tighter culinary focus, for example rotisserie chicken, tend to revel in flavours and styles that resonate with the brand and keep their guests coming back.

Read the Q&A below to learn more about how Recipe’s brand chefs stay curious in this fast-changing industry.

Q. Where do you look for inspiration for new food creations, flavours, etc?

A. Every chef has their own source of inspiration, but it almost always involves a memory of some sort. A family BBQ, a grandmother's baking, an anniversary dinner or something spectacular experienced on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. These things colour the flavour and texture of our innovation, even when they're guided by a marketing brief.

Q. Walk us through the process of creating new menu items for brands. How do the flavours and ideas differ across brands and food styles? Are there any overlaps?

A. Many of our brands will develop menu items that craft a solution to an identified gap on the menu. A brand may identify a need for more pasta items, a shareable appetizer, an indulgent dessert or an item that's interactive at the table. These basic guidelines start the process and provide guardrails for the type of menu item to be designed. Once the general target is identified, our brand chefs will develop a handful of ideas in the kitchen, crafted with an awareness of a surprising number of details: the cost and availability of the ingredients; the labour that must be spent to clean, process and prepare the ingredients; the set of kitchen equipment – which is often different from location to location – that is available; the staffing level and capabilities of the culinary team; how well the food travels in a delivery setting and what type of packaging needs to be involved; what menu prices we might charge and if that provides the guest with excellent value; how well the food presents, and on which pieces of china, etc. It needs to taste awesome as well, but that's the easy part.

Q. What about removing things from menus? When do you make the decision that something has run its course, aside from low sales?

A. The perennial challenge for any restaurant brand is that, no matter what you take off the menu, it has always been somebody’s reason for living. Sometimes, an item performs beautifully on an LTO (limited time offer) menu, like a festival or seasonal menu, but just sort of falls off the map once it isn't getting the benefit of server focus, social campaigns, flyer drops or radio and TV ads. Now, brands tend to lean heavily on the many facets of data that are available to help make a decision like this. More than just sales, a brand has to consider overall profitability and, today, that's a complex set of variables. Something can be selling very well, but when you layer in food cost, labour cost, packaging cost, line complexity, delivery fees, and more, poor performers will become clear. If tweaks to the recipe or price point won't solve the issue, a departure from the menu is often the solution.

Q. So many brands jump on new, innovative or tried and true food trends (think Nashville Hot Chicken Sandwiches). How do you ensure that you stay true to these flavours while keeping them fresh, exciting and different?

A. The trends have to really be on-brand in order to jump in. Chicken-centred brands will for sure dip their toes in the Nashville Hot Chicken craze, and the type of brand (and their guests) will determine when it makes sense. Kelseys jumped into Nashville Hot Chicken right as it was coming on trend because it was right in the sweet spot for a brand like them – it’s fried chicken, spicy, and inspires beer sales – a perfect fit. Swiss Chalet is exploring the trend at a point in time where the flavour is more ubiquitous and has become more familiar and approachable, but they're putting their own brand stamp on it to keep it centred in the Swiss experience.

Q. Adding on to the above, how do you feel about jumping on food trends? Do you often try to follow what’s new and novel with a spin to it or do you stay away from them?

A. Trends are a fast-moving target. You need to be both confident in the trend direction and its fit for your brand. There's a risk/reward relationship there, where you can provide new food news and excite your guest, but on the downside, many trends go stale very fast. Remember the Unicorn Frappuccino? Charcoal Soft Serve? Atkins? Jumping on the trend just because it's a trend isn't always a great decision, but if it aligns with your natural brand direction it can be a nice win.

Q. How do you ensure that the dishes you create are exciting when faced with a supply shortage in many areas of food? How has it changed the way you look at creating dishes?

A. All brands grapple with this question now. Our suppliers are pressed for staff and they have a limited ability to collaborate with us on new solutions. At times, the best we can do is ensure we have a well-reasoned response to unplanned shortages and work with our supply chain to have approved substitute products ready to go. In terms of planning, it is becoming more and more important to rely on the insight of our sourcing team. Asking "will this be available" as we develop new menu items is a new experience and a totally different question from the usual "how much will this cost".

Q. Some say that the best memories are made around a table of good food and friends. Tell us about one of your favourite memories in your career of food innovation.

A.There are so many – enough to fill a book. Tasting raw fermented tabasco chilies, surrounded by 50,000 old oak barrels in a Louisiana warehouse, with a few Recipe chefs. Eating at Brasserie Georges – an institution in Lyon since 1836 – with the Canadian Bocuse d'Or team and bringing my wife and daughter back years later. Most memorable, though, would be a restaurant in Hawaii called La Mer. On our budget honeymoon in 1996, it was way out of our league. Soup was $12, and that was over 25 years ago! We went back for our 10-year anniversary with a bit more money – but the soup was up to $15. The service was over the top, with a service captain, a waiter, an assistant waiter, a water steward and a sommelier. I remember leaving knowing I would be looking at food a different way, with more curiosity and an openness to exploring alternate ways to get a better experience. Things like Lobster Crème Brûlée and Petits Fours with the chef's signature on them were inspirational ideas then.

Q. What has been your favourite dish to create thus far?

A. Anything I create that makes someone happy is an awesome experience. If you ever need to feel refreshed as a chef, you watch your guests eat, and the reactions of a happy diner will top your energy levels right up. When you create for your brand, you're doing it to make three distinct groups happy: your franchisees, your guests and your team. When you can pull that off, that's truly rewarding. But, on the occasion when I get to cook just for the pleasure of a small group of friends, you can explore without the constraints of profitability and the abilities of your culinary teams. The last time I did this, one of the courses was a double quenelle of dry-aged Wagyu beef tartare on a spear of cave-aged Gruyere grilled cheese, done with artisan sourdough in cultured Normandy butter, and drizzled with a creamy sriracha Russian dressing. That's my current favourite.