Best Menu Revamp

Asian Dumplings with Thai Peanut Sauce and Ruby Minis™

By Mary Caldwell

Item: Asian Dumplings with Thai Peanut Sauce and Ruby Minis™
Rollout: May 10, 2005
Company: Ruby Tuesday
Headquarters: Maryville , Tenn
Units: 862 company-owned and franchised units
Region: worldwide
Description: extensive menu revamp, including nine new burgers and upgrades to the entire burger line; eight new appetizers; one new entrée; 26 new salad bar offerings —19 food items and seven dressings

Developers: Julie Reid, vice president of culinary; Bob Eberhardt, culinary manager of research and development; Scott Ames, culinary manager of research and development

When all was said and done, the red onion rings remained the same, but pretty much everything else about Ruby Tuesday’s burgers changed. Ruby Tuesday, with annual systemwide sales of almost $1.75 billion, rolled out an extensive menu revamp last year that upgraded nearly every burger component — including the plate on which it is served.

Julie Reid, Ruby Tuesday’s vice president of culinary, explaining why the menu revamp paid so much attention to burgers, says, “Ruby’s started in 1972 as a gourmet hamburger concept, and this returning to hamburgers and a burger-centric positioning was really a return to our roots.” Reid says about 30 percent of the chain’s customers choose something from the burger/sandwich category. According to Bob Eberhardt, culinary manager of research and development, this translates to about 150 burgers — 75 pounds — per day in a typical location. Guest checks average $10 to $11 at lunch and $12 to $13 at dinner.

“We’ve always felt that we had a very good burger, so we started looking at components of that burger,” Eberhardt says.

Visual appeal came into play, too. When Eberhardt and Scott Ames, culinary manager of research and development, visited Ruby Tuesday locations, they noticed that the burger didn’t always look as pretty as it should. “So often it would arrive at your table with the right components and cooked just right, but it slid to the left or the right,” Eberhardt notes. “We wanted to see what would make it more structurally sound.”

The culprit seemed to be the mound of shredded iceberg lettuce on which the burger sat. The solution, after many rounds of testing, was a palm-sized piece of leaf lettuce, which boosted the sandwich’s flavor as well as its stability.

Other improvements to the burgers included:

• upgrading to a golden wheat bun

• switching to 100-percent USDA Choice hamburger meat from a blend of Choice and Select grades

• upgrading the American cheese to a more flavorful version

• changing from precooked bacon to applewood bacon cooked in house

• ripening tomatoes in house

• using fresh-packed pickles instead of jarred pickles

At Ruby Tuesday, every change goes through a rigorous testing process, starting with planning and discussions among the research and development team. Cynthia Ackerman, manager of culinary product procurement, acts on sourcing needs such as finding the best turkey burger or the juiciest chicken breast. Ames and Eberhardt are responsible for the bench work. The whole research and development team meets weekly to review, taste, critique and tweak products. Eberhardt says that the team typically deals with 10 to 12 items each week, which fall into three broad categories: new items, changes to existing items or contract items.

At weekly “food shows,” the R&D team presents dishes to the executive food committee — including founder and chief executive Sandy Beall and key marketing and operations team members — who are likely to suggest additional modifications. This back-and-forth process may be repeated several times. Products that make the cut here are looked at again by a larger group.

Once all involved parties have signed off on new menu items, Pat Peterson, director of culinary training and implementation, and Patrick Gill, manager of culinary systems and support, plan the logistics of taking the products to test in designated stores, and ultimately, for products that test well, to systemwide rollout.

The revamp also added eight appetizers and freshened the chain’s salad bar with more than two dozen choices. These menu areas are seen as key opportunities for enticing guests to supplement a burger meal, which has relatively low cost, and thereby boost check averages.

The salad bar was updated with the addition of spring mixed greens and fresh edamame, among other things. According to Reid, edamame “makes a really, really nice topping on a salad.” “It’s very unique,” she adds. “It’s something that you don’t see at a lot of places, so it’s a freshness cue, that we have fresh things current and on trend — not weird, not way out, but just on trend.”

Jeremy MacNealy, contributing writer at The Motley Fool, an investment advisory services company based in Alexandria, Va., says: “One of my primary criticisms of Ruby Tuesday in times past is the concept offered no compelling reason for customers to choose it over like concepts down the road. The company has since made efforts to distinguish itself by employing a more a burger-centric menu. According to its latest financial results, the strategy is paying off.”

MacNealy adds: “One of the best ways to determine whether what a restaurant is doing is actually working is by looking at comparable same-store sales. In the third quarter of fiscal 2006 Ruby Tuesday’s revenues in company-owned units and in franchised sites that have been open for more than year increased 4.7 percent and 5.4 percent, respectively. Compare this to the same period a year ago when these metrics were down 10.2 percent and 13.1 percent, respectively.

“How have these improvements translated for shareholders in the past 12 months? Try on a 40 percent return for size. What Ruby Tuesday is doing is working, and the menu changes are a significant reason why.”


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