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PDQ’s corporate test kitchen helps shape menu updates

— Twenty-four cups of milkshake sat half-eaten on a granite conference room table at the corporate offices of PDQ restaurant on Tuesday afternoon.

Once a year, the Tampa-based fast-casual restaurant chain shuffles the lineup of its milkshakes to include seasonal flavors. This year, the chain asked each franchise restaurant to submit a flavor for consideration using ingredients that were either already in their supplies or easily available.

Milkshake recipes submitted included such temptations as Birthday Cake, PB&J, Frosted Cinnamon Roll, Banana Pudding, Bananas Foster, Chocolate Marshmallow Banana Monkey and M&M Chocolate.

Making a menu change is risky for any food business, and especially so for a restaurant chain. Committing to a new item requires not only research and testing, but ordering supplies, distribution to franchises, marketing plans, evaluation of results and, if needed, revisions to the recipe to make customers happy.

After more than a dozen taste testers snaked around the conference table Tuesday taking spoonfuls, PDQ president Steve Erickson stood with a ratings sheet in the makeshift milkshake lab, clicked a pen and asked the group which flavors stood out. A chorus of voices clogged the room.

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“OK, from all the banana ones, was there one that stood out?” Erickson asked.

Banana Pudding No. 2, the group said. Banana Pudding No. 1 was too mild, several said. Not enough vanilla wafer chunks in the mix.

“I thought Bananas Foster was good,” PDQ founder and principal owner Bob Basham said. Several in the room nodded in agreement.

“I like that Cinnamon Bun one,” someone chimed.

“Cinnamon Bun represents!” another person said. “It tasted like Cinnamon Toast Crunch.”

The PB&J rated well, although Basham said it could use more sweetness from jelly. The first version of a Birthday Cake shake had a strong rating, too. But the M&M shake did not fare so well.

“Horrible,” someone said.

“Terrible,” another commented. “The aftertaste was weird.”

That’s from the blue dye of the M&Ms, Basham said.

“It will sell the most because of brand recognition,” PDQ principal owner Nick Reader said after the tasting. Sometimes, having a familiar brand in the name is enough to push an item to success. It can be the difference between an Oreo shake, which has strong sales, and a key lime shake, which does OK but isn’t setting any records in the PDQ drive-thru lane.

Last year, the group tested a s’mores shake and a Rice Krispies flavor. “Steve and I made a bet,” Reader said. “I said Rice Krispies would sell more because of the name. It was a chocolate shake with some Rice Krispies in it. Steve said s’mores would sell better.”

“It cost me a couple hundred bucks,” Erickson said with a defeated chuckle.

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Each restaurant chain has its own way of evaluating and replacing menu items. Lee Roy Selmon’s restaurants, for example, uses seasonal menus to introduce new sandwiches, appetizers, salads and desserts. Those with strong sales during those limited time periods can replace items on the year-round menu that have declined in popularity or need reinventing.

PDQ in January opened the R&D Kitchen at its headquarters off the Veterans Expressway to give its menu items a tryout and test new ingredients or kitchen equipment. R&D is where the milkshakes for Tuesday’s tasting were made before springing them on the group in the blind evaluation.

R&D Kitchen is open to the public inside the company’s office building at 4343 Anchor Plaza Parkway in Tampa. The kitchen’s rotating menu options give the company instant feedback on what is selling well. The kitchen also is the testing ground for the Wow! That’s Fresh chain started by Reader and Basham, who was also an original Outback Steakhouse founder.

Rick Kochen, R&D Kitchen’s operating director, worked for Outback and Panera before joining PDQ. Most large companies test items out of their corporate offices, he said, then go local in their home city before letting the new item trickle down into various markets.

“They want to see if it has legs,” Kochen said. “They ask, ‘Do we get a return on the investment?’ ‘Are people happy?’ ‘Can we execute it?’”

Many chains come to the Tampa Bay area to test new concepts because the population offers a broad demographic. In short, if it plays well here, it will play well elsewhere, because so many people in Tampa come from other parts of the nation and the world.

Customers generally are unaware of most things food companies test, Kochen said. For PDQ, it might be a better way to cook French fries or a new company that wants to supply chicken for the tenders.

“You might be eating what we’re testing, but you’re not always aware,” he said.

Some changes are more obvious. PDQ started with a basic cole slaw with dressing, then tried a jalapeno cole slaw before switching to one with blueberries that is currently sold.

PDQ rarely adds new items because it attempts to keep the menu streamlined, Reader said. An eye is always kept on speed, quality and efficiency.

Because PDQ still is growing in its number of locations and brand identity, Basham said, “You can’t change the menu and do a lot of different things. You have to focus on execution.”

PDQ pours a base mixture into a chilling machine to get its milkshakes cold, then adds ingredients and hand-spins them to order with a mixer to get the correct flavors and consistency. Simplicity of ingredients is key, Basham said, because speed and costs are concerns.

A beverage is easier to change on a menu because the ingredients are simple and few. Something like a chicken tender or a salad can take many revisions based on taste tests and the ability to obtain ingredients at a price that allows a profit.

As for the milkshakes, Basham said he might like the way one tastes, but his practical side has to consider whether it will appeal to customers.

“The Birthday Cake one, it’s a really good milkshake I know would sell because of the name,” he said. “The Cinnamon Bun would sell because it’s something people can relate to. You get into a creamy Bananas Foster, they’re really good, but in people’s minds they might not be familiar.”

Rotating milkshake flavors not only gives employees a chance to feel ownership of an item, it gives PDQ a conversation starter with customers and fans on social media.

“It gives our people something to talk about a little bit,” Basham said. “The idea is to make more money.”

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