Taking Restaurant Brands Retail
By Betty Hogan
Dining out is high on most peoples list of pleasurable activities. Experiencing delicious new cuisines, distinct flavor combinations and appealing plate presentations are a few of the pleasures of a satisfying restaurant meal. However, most people cannot afford the luxury of eating out at every meal. Taking home a little bit of that experience strengthens the patrons loyalty to a restaurant while adding variety to the foods consumed at home.
Many restaurants have a signature dish or condiment that patrons want to purchase for consumption at home. Often, these requests convince the restaurateur to package their product for retail sale. The process of taking a restaurant brand to the retail trade is quite complicated. Many restaurateurs have no idea where to begin. This entire process must be planned from determining the market potential for the product to finding a copacker, developing a package design, finding brokers and negotiating with supermarkets for shelf space.
Many restaurant dishes cant make the transition from table to package. Artistic, vertically composed entrées with carefully balanced layers, tossed salads with produce that wilts and fresh dairy-based dishes that quickly spoil are not candidates for retail-market mass production. Many of these ingredients also appear as components or flavor accents in a vast majority of restaurant dishes, and leaving them out often ruins the flavor profile, leaving it ordinary. Even meat-based dishes are difficult to transition to retail, as warmed-over flavors can taint even the best cut of exquisitely prepared meat. Baked goods stale quickly and lose their fresh-from-the-oven crispness.
This leaves us with few items that can retain the taste and texture profiles as consumed in the restaurant. Low pH, shelf-stable and processing-tolerant recipes and products, such as condiments, dressings, soups, sauces; dry goods; and items that freeze well and require minimal preparation, are the most likely candidates. A product that requires the high-heat cooking conditions available in a restaurant also is unlikely to succeed as a retail version. Most home range tops and broilers do not produce sufficient BTUs to achieve crisp crusts and quick cooking that sears in flavor and keeps foods moist.
Once a restaurateur decides to take a product to retail they also must determine whether their product is required to meet an FDA standard of identity. Jams, jellies and salad dressings all have standards in the Code of Federal Regulations. Because of the standard of identities for both salad dressing and French dressing, most of the products on the market are non-standardized products that call themselves dressings without including the word salad in front of it.
Mustards, vinaigrettes and marinades dont have standards of identity, which allows a much broader range of ingredients and flavor combinations in their composition. Regardless of whether or not the products must meet a standard of identity, they must all conform to FDA guidelines governing food-product quality. The majority of restaurant-brand items on the market are acidified products, such as condiments, dressings and sauces. Several players have ventured into the freezer case, but these are much fewer in number. But no matter what the product, each restaurant has to find a way to produce restaurant-quality product for the mass market.
Rising to success
When Carolyn Niklas-Pappas took over the Bistro Garden restaurant chain, Studio City, CA, from her father, she decided to sell its signature individual dessert soufflés in the freezer case. Initially, she prepared the soufflés in the restaurants kitchen and sold them frozen to local upscale grocery chains. As sales grew, Niklas-Pappas had to choose between continuing production at her own facility, finding a copacker or licensing the brand name to a manufacturer. She decided to build her own plant and formed a new company to produce the soufflés for mass distribution.
The company, called BG Soufflé, currently has four soufflés (chocolate, swirl, and seasonal raspberry and pumpkin), and soon will be adding two new flavors to the line (lemon and vanilla) that will include raspberry-sauce packets in the box. BG Soufflés plant prepares the fresh-raspberry sauce and then sends it to a copacker who packs it into pouches. The frozen sauce requires no added preservatives or acidifying agents.
No new ingredients were added to the restaurant recipe when we started producing in mass quantity. It is the exact same recipe as it was 38 years ago, says Niklas-Pappas. We did have to adjust the process slightly when we scaled up the batch size to maintain the same finished-product quality. The soufflés are packed in aluminum ramekins that go directly from the freezer to a hot oven. The company conducted in-home tests of the soufflés to be sure that the serving directions worked well in home ovens.
Keeping it authentic
The copacker option is common. Frontera Foods, started by chef/owner Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo restaurants, Chicago, relies on the excellent working relationships with its copackers to ensure the products meet the expected quality standards and flavor profiles. In scaling up restaurant batches, Frontera carefully watched how the salsa and sauces were prepared in the restaurant and taught the copacker to use those cooking and grilling techniques to bring out the same flavor profile in the vegetables.
Fronteras goal is to come as close as possible to the restaurant version when producing a product for retail looking for those items that sold well in the restaurant, would hold up through pasteurization and still deliver the desired flavor profile. For example, the restaurant features a fresh avocado dressing that would not translate to a bottled version. The freshness of the ingredients and the delicate flavor profile were lost in processing, so we did not pursue it, says JeanMarie Brownson, culinary director, Frontera Foods. Among its line of products, including salsas, spice blends, grill rubs, tortilla chips and margarita mixes, Frontera has roasted tomato, three-chile and roasted-garlic and onion salsas that hold up well under the manufacturing process.
The only tradeoff the company was willing to make was to translate fresh versions of salsas to roasted versions with stable flavor profiles. The restaurants fresh tomatillo, raw chile and garlic salsa was changed to use roasted tomatillos and garlic because the raw ingredients fresh flavors did not come through the pasteurization process. Although the flavor in the roasted version is different from the fresh version, it still has an authentic taste with the quality level they demand in the restaurant.
Due to raw material variability, Frontera occasionally adds paprika extract to achieve the right color in a salsa if the base tomatoes are not quite red enough. Citric acid is used in the margarita mix to bring the pH below 4.6.
Not willing to sacrifice quality, the company took three years to develop its retail tortilla chip commercially. The restaurant hand-makes fried stone-ground corn tortillas into chips. So Frontera insisted that the copacker start with corn kernels, grind them onsite, prepare tortillas, cut them and fry them into chips instead of using powdered corn flour in a faster process. This more closely replicates the quality of the restaurant chip. The restaurants frying blend contains animal fats to enhance flavor, but since virtually all grocery versions are cholesterol-free, the retail product uses vegetable oil.
If a packaged product doesnt match the taste profile and expectations of the restaurant version, Frontera will not put its label on it. Unable to duplicate the exact flavor profile of the restaurants signature margarita, a retail version carries the Maraca brand name. The flavor of fresh-squeezed limes differs markedly from the flavor of pasteurized lime juice, so the finished drink was not the same as in the restaurant.
When the company was first choosing a copacker, Brownson enlisted the aid of a quality-assurance specialist to help inspect the copacker facilities and teach company staff about plant sanitation procedures. Throughout the process, the secret to success is keeping Bayless heavily involved in all aspects of the products, including visiting the plants very often.
Traditional bottled dressings are emulsions of oil and water. Typical retail dressings have acidulants; flavorings; stabilizers; thickeners; sequestrants, such as calcium disodium EDTA; crystallization inhibitors, such as polyglycerol esters of fatty acids; and lecithin in addition to the simple oil and vinegar base. Restaurateurs looking for an all-natural, clean and simple ingredient statement will avoid using most of these items and look for natural solutions.
Gums and starches stabilize the oil-and-water emulsion in salad dressings by keeping the droplets dispersed and slowing down the rate at which the oil droplets recombine. Gums also help to keep herbs and seasoning particles in suspension. Stabilizers provide mouthfeel, thickness and cling to dressings. Clean-label stabilizers include gum arabic, carrageenan, guar gum and xanthan gum, which is very stable under high-acid conditions. Native non-modified starches also are used in all-natural labeled products.
If an all-natural label is not a requirement, many stabilizer options are available from granular instant starch to cook-up modified starches and methylcellulose gums that hold up extremely well under high-acid conditions. The high oil content in dressings makes them susceptible to oxidation and rancidity. Chemical antioxidants, such as BHA and BHT, retard oxidative rancidity. Natural options include tocopherols, rosemary oil and ascorbic acid.
Chef Jody Denton, Restaurant LuLu, San Francisco, developed the LuLu line in order to increase awareness of the restaurant and offer customers the same restaurant experience at home. The company also uses a copacker to manufacture its upscale retail products. The line has grown to 37 distinct items, including flavored honeys and vinegars, vinaigrettes and marinades, mayonnaises and mustards, pasta sauces, seasoning blends, and jams and conserves. Dishes served at the restaurant use most of the products, but some are simply in keeping with the style of the restaurant.
Interested in keeping an all-natural label, the company refuses to add chemical preservatives, instead choosing to bump up the percentage of higher-acid components if the pH is not low enough. When additional technical expertise is required, the company turns to the University of California-Davis.
Teaming up with experience
While acidified products and dry goods may be easier to translate to retail, that doesnt deter some restaurateurs from bringing their uniquely flavored entrées to market. We wanted to bring our restaurant-quality pizzas to people who didnt have time to come into the restaurants or may not have a restaurant near them, says Rick Rosenfield, co-founder of California Pizza Kitchen Inc. (CPK), Los Angeles.
CPK licensed its brand to Kraft Foods Inc., Memphis, TN, a company with a wealth of expertise in the frozen-pizza category. The companies chose pizza combinations that sold well in the restaurants and could be duplicated for the freezer case. Versions incorporating fresh salsas or garnishes, such as sour cream, lettuce or guacamole, were not included. Kraft was able to use the depth of its research and development team to make the product transition from the restaurant a smooth one. For example, the DiGiorno® rising-crust pizza technology was tapped into for the CPK product.
Self-rising frozen-pizza doughs increase in volume during baking, developing gas by using a slow-acting acid in the baking powder activated by the ovens heat. Coating the baking powder with fat protects it from losing activity during freezer storage. Sodium aluminum phosphate releases gas above 135°F, allowing volume development early in baking. After rising, crust sets and browns when the dough reaches a much higher temperature.
Several approaches minimize the likelihood of soggy crusts. Brushing melted butter or margarine onto the surface of the pizza dough and allowing it to harden before applying the sauce limits sauce moisture migration during storage. Stabilizers in the sauce bind water, preventing it from migrating into the dough.
Using fresh-frozen herbs and vegetables helps minimize the differences between restaurant pizzas and frozen versions. Frozen herbs retain over 90% of their volatile oils after six months of storage. Dried herbs start with only 60% of fresh herbs oil content, losing approximately half of that within six months. The fresh-frozen herbs contain no preservatives and allow the clean-ingredient labels that most restaurant brands demand. Frozen herbs are used at the same weight as fresh herbs and at nearly twice the weight of dried herbs.
While pizza is more of a mass-market product, most of CPKs retail varieties are anything but mainstream, including Garlic Chicken, Rosemary Chicken-Potato, Thai Chicken, BBQ Chicken and Roasted Portobello Mixed Mushroom. Its frozen pizzas are a 9-in. single-serving offering, keeping with the theme that the retail product needs to duplicate the restaurant version.
Hold the pickle
White Castle had no product formulation issues when taking its restaurant offering and producing it for the frozen grocery channel it was a matter of process. The question we had was how to prepare the burgers in mass production so they would have the same taste and texture of a freshly prepared Slyder®, explains Vicki Steinbrook, director of sales and marketing, White Castle Distributing, the retail division of the Columbus, OH-based chain.
White Castle designed its production equipment to cook the product exactly the same as in its restaurants. Beef patties are placed atop a bed of rehydrated dried onions that are cooking on a griddle. The steam from the onions cooks through patties pierced with five round holes that allow the onions steam to pervade the burger, resulting in faster cooking and flavor penetration to the bun. The bun is a unique formulation with a porous texture that holds up extremely well in freezing and through microwave reheating.
The only tradeoff the company was willing to make in the retail version of the Slyder was leaving off the pickle that is a standard restaurant ingredient it did not perform well in frozen conditions. White Castle also developed freezer-protective packaging to give the burgers a one-year retail shelf life.
Carlson Restaurants Worlwides T.G.I. Fridays brand teamed up with Anchor Food Products of Appleton, WI, several years ago to introduce a line of branded snacks into the retail frozen-food case. Dallas-based T.G.I. Fridays goal is to make its products best in class against other frozen snack products. It is not always feasible to directly replicate the restaurant products, since the cooking processes and preparation methods are different at home, explains Janna Markel, senior director of brand licensing, Carlson.
A good example of this is the companys mozzarella cheese sticks. At the restaurant, the sticks are fried, but the home version had to be ovenable. The retail product is par-fried to ensure the proper color and texture out of the oven. The potato skins also required adjustment. In the restaurant, T.G.I. Fridays uses baked potato halves for the potato-skin boats, but the retail product had to switch to quartered potatoes to accommodate the manufacturing process. The product has the same taste profile with a smaller portion size.
Restaurant-branded retail products run the gamut from salsa and dressings to burgers and pizza. What they all share is distinctiveness that ranges from singular flavor profiles for dressings or frozen pizza to a unique product concept, such as a frozen dessert soufflé. With the share of dollars spent on foodservice continually growing, the lines between retail and foodservice will continue to blur as more restaurant-brand products find their way onto the grocery shelves and into our homes.
Betty Hogan is a food-industry consultant specializing in marketing and new-product development and has worked in the food industry nearly 15 years. Hogan earned a masters degree from Northwestern Universitys J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management and a masters in food science from the University of Illinois. Contact her via e-mail at [email protected].
Back to top
3400 Dundee Rd. Suite #100
Northbrook, IL 60062
E-Mail: [email protected]