ORLANDO, Fla. – When the restaurant industry needs guinea pigs, it often finds them in Central Florida.
Orlando-area residents have recently sampled new Chick-fil-A salads, a healthy Cracker Barrel menu and Red Lobster’s pay-at-the-counter option before most other American diners.
New products or menus often are tried out in Orlando because it’s a big city filled with chains, a diverse population and millions of annual visitors. It is also home to several national and regional restaurant companies, which like to test close to corporate headquarters.
“Orlando gives you the geographic diversity; people from all over the country go here,” said H.G. Parsa, a former University of Central Florida restaurant professor now on the faculty of the University of Denver’s business school. “That’s the beauty of it.”
And Orlando may get even more trial runs soon. Trying to keep up with rapidly changing consumer tastes, restaurants have dramatically ramped up new menu offerings, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of restaurant-research company Technomic.
At the same time, casual-dining companies such as Orlando-based Darden Restaurants, owner of Olive Garden and Red Lobster, are experimenting with new approaches as they fight to keep customers wanting faster, cheaper fare.
Restaurants learn many things from the testing process. They don’t just consider whether the new dish racks up enough in sales. Can it be prepared relatively easily? Will it cannibalize sales from more profitable offerings?
“A menu item that has … a very thin margin, that doesn’t draw any new traffic, that pulls people away from a more profitable item is a loser,” said Dennis Lombardi, a restaurant consultant with Ohio-based WD Partners.
Companies also may tweak the final product based on what they hear from customers in test markets.
Chick-fil-A knew it wanted to sell its new Cobb, Asian and grilled market salads even before it started analyzing them recently in Orlando and Raleigh, N.C. Chick-fil-A’s across the country plan to replace their current salads with the new ones Monday.
But the Atlanta-based chain made some changes based on consumer feedback. Pretzel rolls that originally accompanied the salads are gone because they didn’t seem to tempt diners’ taste buds. Customers did want more chicken nuggets in the Cobb and Asian salads, however. So the salads will now have eight nuggets instead of the original six.
Orlando is one of about a dozen Chick-fil-A test markets across the United States. The area has many experienced operators who can offer insights, said David Farmer, Chick-fil-A’s vice president of product strategy and development. For instance, Chick-fil-A heeded the suggestion of a Winter Springs, Fla., store manager who wanted color-coded packaged-salad condiments, so employees in a hurry don’t mistakenly hand the garlic-and-ginger wontons for Asian salads to customers who ordered the Cobb.
Tennessee-based Cracker Barrel has been trying a “Wholesome Fixin’s” menu featuring items with fewer than 600 calories at several Central Florida restaurants, including one near Orlando International Airport. Cracker Barrel would not say what other markets are sampling the menu, which it plans to introduce to the entire nation this summer.
Atlanta-based Wing Zone and Miami-based Pollo Tropical have tested in Central Florida. And McDonald’s used 180 Orlando-area restaurants as a testing ground for Garden Wraps, a precursor to the Premium McWraps that made their national debut last month.
Meanwhile, companies such as Darden and Tony Roma’s, which also bases operations here, often use Orlando to assess new methods and products.
In two area locations, Darden’s Red Lobster is trying out “Seaside Express,” where diners order and pay at the counter. Olive Garden is testing out an online ordering system in a few parts of the country.
After testing them here first, Tony Roma’s is rolling out online ordering and new menu items. Diner questionnaires completed online or on in-house tablets helped the chain determine that grilled focaccia bruschetta and a new flat-iron-steak dish would succeed. A salmon with Sriracha butter, however, didn’t make the cut.
Lower-to-mid-priced chains find Orlando especially appealing because the region’s median income is a little less than the U.S. average.
“They demand value for the money,” Parsa said. “If [products] can make it in a value-conscious market, they can make it easily.”