Tis the season to LTO: Food safety cautions you should know

| by Doug Sutton
Tis the season to LTO: Food safety cautions you should know

These last two months of the year always bring great opportunities for limited-time offers that can not only bring in regulars, but attract new customers for the whole year to come. These new temporary offerings not only keep the brand fresh and top of mind in your community, but drive sales and create a little customer excitement. In fact, limited-time offers can also provide operators with that essential trial run on an offering in a single market to test sales before company-wide implementation.

But these new items  typically come with some food safety risks for staff who are unfamiliar with new ingredients or processes — a situation that may ultiimately threaten the effectiveness of your usual safety practices or staff capabilities. To avoid the disasters that are borne out of food safety problems, keep the following four points in mind.

1. Know the risks

When adding in menu items there are unique risks that accompany each ingredient. For example, different foods may need to be stored at a specific temperature and others may require specialized storage that is outside routine standards for your brand's signature items. Items might also come in packaging that your team may not be familiar with or know how to handle unpacking, such as vacuum-sealed or reduced oxygen packaging.

When considering preparation, new items may necessitate a separate prep space or protocol, such as using green cutting boards for vegetables and yellow cutting boards for poultry. For instance, if your business is a pizza concept that adds hot wings to the menu, you've now introduced a raw protein and will need separate utensils and prep areas that are different from how your company regularly prepares other items. If not considered when adding a new item, this can lead to cross-contamination, potential food-borne illnesses and can put your brand at risk.

2. Plan ahead

Plan ahead with your supplier to ensure they can handle the supply and quantities of ingredients you need. You want to ensure that you have the ability to support the demand of the excitement behind new items to not sell-out on the first day. Additionally, you do not want to have a surplus that cannot maintain freshness, as this waste of unused food will also impact your bottom line. The more items you have, the harder it is to determine shelf life, because your customers have more options. Projections regarding ingredient turnover are paramount to a successful offering. Also, plan for staffing changes that may be impacted by new items.

To illustrate, if you add a milkshake, this item requires a team member standing at the machine for as long as 60-seconds. This may require increased staffing or changes in customer wait time. All of these considerations will impact budgeting. Proper budgeting is important to ensure that a menu item, even if for a limited time, will have positive ROI for your brand.

3. Don't overlook the importance of proper training

Do not assume that your staff knows how to cook new items. Team meetings and demonstrations are essential to lead a team both at location level, as well as company-wide. For example, if you are a salad concept and you add salmon to the menu you'll need to decide if you are buying raw or precooked, as this choice determines if you need to train your staff that never cooked seafood before.

Or, if you are incorporating soft serve ice cream, it's imperative to train staff how to properly clean equipment. While the regulations on soft serve vary geographically, some regions require a specialized licensing, regular microbiological testing on the product, or even health department regulation from a different department from the one that inspects the rest of the facility. Before beginning a promotion, your business will need to contact your local health department to determine what rules apply in your jurisdiction.

Beyond protocol, training will also need to educate on potential questions staff may receive from customers regarding taste, allergens, etc., ranging from "Is this dairy free?" to "How long is this product available in-store?" While training may seem obvious for new item introduction, your team will need to develop this training and account for the cost of having full staff in attendance.

4. Assess success

When done well, the entire process — from ideation and product tests, to on-menu availability — can take nine months to a year for companies to execute, regardless of size.  The most successful campaigns are the ones where time is spent to develop and roll out the idea gradually. To evaluate success, businesses should conduct online surveys and customer satisfaction polls. Additionally, it is key to communicate all new items and inaugural promotions to your third-party assessment partner to include in your quarterly assessments and provide keen insights on up keeping brand standards, customer experience, and food safety in the midst of ongoing promotions and cycling menus.

Adding new, trendy limited-time promotions can be great to drive sales, boost traffic and introduce new customers to your brand.  However, if these are undertaken with poor  planning, adequate safety training and no assessment of the success of the LTO, brands can end up with food safety issues that far outweigh any LTO gains in sales or brand reputation.  


Photo: iStock

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Catering, Food Safety, Marketing / Branding / Promotion

Doug Sutton

Doug Sutton is the President of Steritech, leader in food safety and service excellence assessments for a range of industries, including hospitality, restaurants, grocery and convenience stores. Through benchmarking a client's performance against its peers, correlating assessment scores to voice-of-customer feedback and same store sales, and by providing insights that help clients focus on what matters most to their customers, well-designed assessment programs can help clients mitigate risk and drive consistent, safe operations.

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