Arby's product pipeline is deeper than it's ever been, and the culinary team is working on items nearly two years in advance.
The company is on par with a broader trend in the QSR space — having a robust R&D strategy to fit consumers' quickly changing preferences.
"It's critical in this space now to be relevant but unique. Guests' expectations for variety and quality at a great value has increased and brands need to be prepared to respond very quickly to that evolving environment in consumer preference," said Len Van Popering, senior vice president of Product Development and Innovation.
To keep pace, Arby's has implemented a variety of initiatives to develop culinary ideation. They include the "Hey Chef Neville" program, which was created nearly two years ago, partnerships with the chef community and culinary schools, crowdsourcing more heavily and engaging suppliers "in more meaningful ways."
"We've gone from a thin pipeline to one that is four times the annual volume of what we've done historically. It's important to understand the information coming from third parties about mega trends, but where a company gets its competitive advantage is when it discerns which mega trends apply to the guests coming into their restaurants," Van Popering said. "We're able to do that more with these different components."
Hey Chef Neville
Perhaps the most unorthodox R&D strategy employed by Arby's is its "Hey Chef Neville program." Named after Arby's Corporate Executive Chef Neville Simpson Craw, the program started when a group of franchisees requested that a suggestion program be put into place.
Arby's received about 100 suggestions throughout the course of the program's first year, 2012. One of those ideas – House Made Chips – eventually made it onto the menu. The potato chip line, flavored with the brand's signature sauce seasoning, provided an opportunity to complement curly fries as a side option. The product was conceived by a franchisee's team member and ran as an LTO for four months.
"We're very happy with the performance of the product and it's something that remains a viable item for our calendar. It fits the brand well," Van Popering said. "It is an exciting success story."
Team members — from the front counter to the corporate office — can submit menu ideas for the potential of earning a spot on the menu and for cash prizes up to $1,500, depending how far the product makes it through the company's screening process. After receiving about 100 submissions last year, Arby's is on pace to receive 1,200 ideas this year.
The company has also added new challenges to the program, such as asking for specific product themes like sandwiches or entrees. Van Popering said the program will be in place and will continue to grow for the foreseeable future.
"The more we're able to demonstrate that we can leverage the experience of our team members who are on the front line connecting with customers, the more everyone benefits," he said.
Other sources of ideation
Arby's also uses its social media channels to crowdsource menu ideas. Last year, for example, the brand's Facebook fans were asked to vote on shake flavors.
"Crowdsourcing is a trend, and I think it will become more and more important over time," Van Popering said. Drawing from customer suggestions, however, can be tricky, as it focuses too much on current cravings.
"When it comes to innovation work, it's a balance between asking guests what they'd like to eat with anticipating what they're going to eat before they even know," Van Popering said
Predicting trends entails investing time in various markets and understanding what's happening from a competitive standpoint, not only in QSR but across all channels such as grocery and convenience stores. Historically, Van Popering said, much of the culinary attention was on the fine dining segment, with trends trickling down into other segments. Now, it's less linear.
"A trend can originate in any number of places. It's important to have many components for this (ideation). That's why we're partnering more with culinary schools and supply partners and other resources," he said. "There is not one path to success. You have to make sure you're covering as many bases as possible. You never know where the next great idea will come from."
Some culinary trends
When asked what trends he's seeing in the marketplace, Van Popering said bread will continue to be a strategic differentiator, as it has been in the QSR space all year — with flatbreads, sourdough and pretzel bread as examples.
"The success we enjoyed with our King's Hawaiian Roast Beef sandwich is indicative of the consumer response to distinctive bread. It is something that will be sustained over the course of time," he said.
And, like bread, cheese will also start to be varied on QSR menus. Arby's new Smokehouse Brisket sandwich, for example, features smoked Gouda cheese and is served on a bakery-style bun.
"We are looking at a much broader range of cheeses than the historic go-tos of cheddar, American and Swiss. Now, Gouda, Havarati and Asiago are in the mainstream marketplace," Van Popering said. "The brands that respond to these changing palates are the ones that will enjoy disproportionate success."
Read more about menu trends.