Restaurant retail products: 3 brands offer lessons learned

| by S.A. Whitehead
Restaurant retail products: 3 brands offer lessons learned

Wednesday on this website, you heard from three brands at various stages of exploration and involvement in retail product creation and distribution, including one of the earliest players in this game, White Castle, as well as Focus Brands' Cinnabon and Auntie Anne's and finally a new entry to the alternate revenue stream field, Your Pie. Their stories showed the variety of entry points that bands can make to plunge into the business of selling retail food products.

Today, we dive deeper to see how these three brands' experiences can inform other restaurant concepts leaders about the good, the bad and the ugly. 

Picking the prime product for retail

We begin where a lot of those reading this article are probably already at mentally — choosing the product to take out of the restaurant and into consumers' homes. What we learned from all three brands is that the answers are where they usually are — with the customers."

"Focus on exceeding customer expectations," said White Castle Vice President Jamie Richardson. "What's unique is that base of fans who know and love you for the taste you have crafted and made special in your restaurant.  

"The first test is going to be a comparison to what your fans are expecting. Better to get that right than to rush to market and miss on measuring up to what they are hoping to experience. And make it easy to get to serving temperature. If it is an eight-step process to get close to restaurant quality, it will try the patience of those you want to keep as close friends."

Your Pie founder and President Drew French said it may be difficult to choose the recommendations customers tell you they will take home through their in-restaurant dollars over those of experts — both in- and out-of-house —but ultimately it goes back to the fact that the customer really is "always right." 
"Listen to your customers!" said French, shortly after the brand introduced its already successful bottle ran dipping sauce. "Just because it's something your marketing or operations departments might think is great, that doesn't mean your customers will. We launched this program based on customer feedback, rather than 'the next big thing' coming from our Support Center office."

Focus Brands Senior Vice President and President of Global Channels Dave Mikita said whether it be the product Cinnabon introduced earlier this summer with Holiday Inn Express or the frozen grocery products introduced earlier this week from Auntie Anne's, the products they choose to take retail are those that "walk the walk and talk the talk" of each brand's  core equities. 

"Whether you're utilizing a product currently found on your menu, or reinventing it in a different format ... we have found that products that deliver against Cinnabon's core equities — warm, ooey-gooey, cinnamon and cream cheese frosting -—historically work the best, no matter how the format is constructed. When we deviate too far from those equities, consumers find us less compelling. It's also important to let the consumer guide you — where is their demand growing (occasion, locations)— that is where you want to be."

The perks and the pits

A big advantage of having retail lines is that the brand gets a whole new kind of publicity and exposure. That's been a huge benefit for White Castle, though brand leadership actually feared the opposite at earlier stages. 

"Early on, in the late 1980', our restaurant operations team worried that having the sandwiches for sale in grocery stores and other outlets in frozen form would harm sales in the restaurants," Richardson recalled.  "That has not been the case in our experience.  If anything — added presence has increased awareness and made us a stronger family-owned business as a result."

Focus Brands' Makita also stressed the power of the right partnership choices when going outside the restaurant withretail products. Some of that, he said, can come to you if your brand is already strong enough based on restaurant business alone. 

"From there, it's all about the innovative nature of the product and the power of the partnership," he said. "Often simply choosing the right partner can be 'buzzworthy,'especially if they have a powerful brand following in their own regard.  

"If you have those ingredients — (an) innovative and relevan product and a powerful partnership — you simply have to add effective marketing activation after launch, and the 'buzz' will follow."

Even with an in-restaurant marketed product like Your Pie's Za Dip, getting a lift in sales and the ensuant buzz that follows works best if your product underscores your brand ethos. 

"Our goal was to better serve the guests who are already in our store through an enhanced experience," French said. "Your Pie is built on the idea of complete customization - from dough options, all the way down to the toppings, sauce and drizzle you finish your pie with. Hopefully, we're encouraging creativity and even more customization during the Your Pie experience."

All of the previously covered territories should not lead anyone considering a foray into retail product creation to believe this is all kicks and giggles. As these three brand leaders will quickly tell you the path to success can be fraught with bumps and ditches and worse. 

"The lead times are longer, and the learning before launch requires diligence and patience," said Richardson of White Castle's experience. "When we add a menu item in the restaurants, we're deciding which Castles will carry it, and how prominently we will feature it in advertising and in-Castle signage.  

"We don't have the same flexibility in working with our retail partners. This is a great opportunity for us to better understand our customer's needs and to share the insights we have about our dedicated consumers."

Makita agreed, saying that the leadership team has  "learned to be very thoughtful" in the development of such products. 

"Our brand architecture determines how we extend the brand as well as the fit for each product. Each partnership has to uphold the high expectations our fans familiar with Cinnabon have for the brand," he said by way of example. "We must always strive to deliver on the consumer expectation. Our brand has a unique ability to take on different forms allowing us to go many places, but it needs to fit our brand architecture to go forward."

And maybe most of all ... it's just fun

As far as the path into the future is concerned for these brands and product development, well,  as you may have guessed, they played it pretty close to the vest since this still is a very competitive game. But they did let on to some of their thinking, as well as giving a good sense that this whole business of making retail products around the brands they love is just really kind of enthralling. 

"We know lots of friends, colleagues and even some competitors will be reading this with great interest - so forgive us if we're a bit shy about oversharing," said Richardson when asked about future products. "When we launched our wild experiment in the retail business over 30 years ago, we didn't anticipate the great success we would encounter, and the opportunity that would provide us to 'feed the souls of craver generations everywhere.'....By having a presence in retail locations - we have a chance to share our heart for hospitality in a way that creates even more memorable moments.  What could be more fun than that?"

Makita said at Focus Brands, they see a lot of room for growth in retail for Cinnabon. 

"Our research indicates we continue to have significant untapped potential for the growth of the (Cinnabon) brand - currently only 50 percent of our fans have access to the brand through a local bakery," Makita said. "Combine that with occasions we have yet to create a product for and we believe we have a lot of opportunity ahead of us. ... 

"It isn't often you can start with such an iconic brand experiencing significant growth in its core brick and mortar business and have the ability to innovate and stretchits its equities to deliver on new and exciting product formats, that delight consumers and fans. It has a very entrepreneurial feel, and, at the end of the day, if done correctly as we are doing, benefits everyone in the brand ecosystem." 

And for Your Pie at the very potential start of its retail journey, French said the company just had an initial taste of the retail product creation business and is hoping for great success.

"We already have a few other ideas in the works. Of course, the details and the process for scale need to be worked out, but we are already encouraged by the response from our customers so far," French said before fielding a question about whether he has enjoyed this initial product development. 

"Absolutely, it's fun! As long as the franchise community feels supported from a marketing and operations perspective, it's fun. We learn from every rollout and this is no exception, but it has been fun so far."

All photos except final picture: S.A. Whitehead

Final  picture: Your Pie

Companies: Cinnabon, Focus Brands, Your Pie, White Castle

S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of and after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.

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