Create an iconic dish and you’ll not only cash in but help cement your brand identity.
When people hear “Bloomin’ Onion” or “Chicken Lettuce Wraps,” many automatically think of Outback Steakhouse and P.F. Chang’s, respectively. That’s because the restaurants have made these dishes their signature menu items — the ones first-time customers come in for especially and the ones repeat customers order again and again. These are the items the restaurants stand behind and devote their marketing dollars to.
But defining dishes aren’t just for chain restaurants. Small businesses can increase revenue and raise brand awareness by creating and promoting their own signature item.
Anthony Ferrari, project specialist at Boston-based RealFood Consulting, which works with restaurants big and small, shared his tips for creating a signature dish.
Consider how you want guests to experience your brand
According to Ferrari, many of his small business restaurant clients fall into the branding trap of trying to please everyone and do everything (this is how you get Greek restaurants that serve fried chicken and diners that have 10-page menus, he said). Not enough restaurants have conversations about who they are aiming to serve and what their restaurant’s identity is.
But when you start brainstorming what your signature item could be, you’re forced to have these conversations. If you don’t, your iconic dish won’t end up being so iconic.
Do you want to create something fun or something full of flavor that flaunts the seriousness of your cooking? Do you want your dish to showcase your hard work or be an interactive and affordable thrill? These are questions to ask yourself, advised Ferrari.
“Try to get in the customer’s shoes and what you want them to experience when they have this item,” Ferrari said. “Think of how you want the customer to experience your brand.”
Brainstorm can’t-get-anywhere-else ideas
One way to go about choosing a signature item is to start brainstorming unique recipes. “It should be something that is craveable but that you can’t necessarily get anywhere else,” Ferrari said.
Perhaps look at food trends and cocktail trends that your competitors aren’t embracing, like poke or over-the-top milkshakes. But again, keep in mind your brand. If you’re a sushi restaurant, you don’t need a milkshake on the menu. But if you’re a steakhouse, it could be a whimsical addition.
“You don’t want to be everything for everyone, and you don’t want new offerings all the time that aren’t cohesive,” Ferrari said.
Look to your bestsellers for inspiration
One of your bestsellers could turn into your signature item if promoted properly.
“Every restaurant knows what sells the most or what people love the most,” said Ferrari.
An Italian restaurant could promote its red sauce as being better than grandma’s, or a steakhouse could turn a steak into a signature item by promoting the special way in which it’s prepared.
Try a seasonal speciality
An alternative to a signature dish: Create something seasonal and limited, like a cocktail with rhubarb and strawberries in the summer.
“Then your customers say, ‘gotta get to X restaurant because it’s strawberry season,’” Ferrari said. “Seasonality is a good thing to look at, because if one dish doesn’t work one season, the next season you pick your brain.”
Get the word out
Any exciting new change to the menu or business has to be communicated to potential customers.
Start by listing your signature dish on the menu with some explainer text about why it’s special. Perhaps single the item out in a box or with an icon. In doing so, you’re saying to guests that you stand by this dish and that it’s the best representation of your restaurant’s experience.
But don’t stop there. Ferrari said your wait staff needs to be on board and trained to promote this dish. Write scripts for how you want servers to talk about the dish, or explain the main selling points.
“For mom and pops you’re only as good as your frontline people, Ferrari said. “It doesn’t have to be as robotic as, ‘Would you like to supersize that?’ But communicate that every table we touch, we talk about the signature item.”
Whether you’re a new restaurant or an older one, you might also benefit from hosting a kickoff event or tasting when you launch the new item. This gets people talking about the dish and refreshes customers’ memories about your restaurant.
Your signature dish is, of course, a marketing tool for your restaurant. It’s an opportunity to make people interested in your restaurant or re-interest them. Pay attention to your POS system’s data to see how hot it is with your customers, and take their feedback seriously.
Your signature dish is just that — your restaurant’s signature. Make it craveable, make it memorable and make it on brand, and chances are guests will gobble it up.