Cutting-edge Flavor Road specials find path to permanence
by Whit Smyth
Program: Flavor Road menu revamp
Rollout: Aug. 20, 2007
Headquarters: Nashville, Tenn.
Representative Dishes: Cedar-Planked Salmon Chopped Salad, O’Charley’s Good Time Grillers, New York Pizza Pie Pasta, Key West Citrus Chicken, Louisiana Sirloin, Cinnamon Sugar Donuts
Menu Developers: Stephen Bulgarelli, vice president of culinary development; Ken McConnell, R&D manager; Kevin Barzani, product development coordinator
During O’Charley’s ongoing brand revitalization program, president Jeff Warne last year turned his attention to pushing the envelope on a menu revamp for the 240-unit casual dining chain.
“I want menu ideas that scare me, ideas that are on the edge,” Warne says.
The man he tapped for the job was a former colleague at T.G.I. Friday’s, Stephen Bulgarelli, a chef who told O’Charley’s to “expect the unexpected” when he joined the Nashville, Tenn.-based chain.
“Unexpected” is what O’Charley’s customers got Aug. 20, 2007, when the chain introduced eight limited-time offers called “Flavor Road.” Those items ran for eight weeks, but customer acceptance was so strong that most will eventually become part of the permanent menu.
“My charge was to break free from the sea of sameness,” says Bulgarelli, who, as the chain’s vice president of culinary development, is responsible for creating all permanent menu items and LTOs. “All casual dining has pretty much identical products, and I was brought on to go over and above what is happening today.”
As soon as Bulgarelli joined O’Charley’s in March 2007, he was going full blast.
“I had to hit the ground running because my predecessor had left at the beginning of December ,” he says. “We were working 24/7 trying to get these products out.”
Bulgarelli tips his toque to fellow team members Ken McConnell, R&D manager, and Kevin Barzani, product development coordinator.
Warne marvels at what his team produced.
“We’ve got three great culinary talents in the kitchen with Stephen, Ken and Kevin,” he says. “They really hadn’t been cut loose. I gave them a simple instruction: scare me.”
Far from scaring customers, the Flavor Road dishes were a hit. They included beer-battered
onion rings, Good Time Grillers, Cedar-Planked Salmon Chopped Salad, Key West Citrus Chicken, New York Pizza Pie Pasta, peppercorn steak, Louisiana Sirloin and Cinnamon Sugar Donuts. Only peppercorn steak, $12.99, will not become a permanent item, primarily because of its complexity.
A winding road
Of the Flavor Road items, New York Pizza Pie Pasta, $10.99, is high on Warne’s list of favorites.
“It just has so much going on, a lot of different flavors coming at you,” he says.
He also called the $14.99 Louisiana Steak, which was recently brought back, a “hero.” Warne adds that the chain’s Key West Citrus Chicken, $9.99, offers a good lessonfor restaurateurs.
“Although this is not my type of dish, you can’t let your personal preference get in the way of what the guest wants,” he says. “This dish had heat and fruit flavor, and the guests loved it.”
For his part, Bulgarelli talks excitedly about the Key West Citrus Chicken.
“The mango papaya salsa topping is fantastic, and also has a kick to it,” he says. “It’s a healthier option with a lot more flavor. It is definitely pushing the envelope on flavor.”
The Cedar-Planked Salmon Chopped Salad, $9.49, is a best seller and a favorite of Bulgarelli, who came up with the idea.
“I was pleasantly surprised when I was interviewing for this job that they had fresh, never-frozen salmon on the menu,” he says. “I wanted to take advantage of that. It is coming back.”
Cinnamon Sugar Donuts, $4.99, are served warm in a bag and shaken tableside.
“Our servers were having a blast with it and doing what they called ‘the doughnut dance,’” Warne says. “When other guests saw that, this dessert began flying out of the kitchen.”
The concept of Good Time Grillers, $8.99, intrigued Bulgarelli.
“I saw them for the first time in Las Vegas at a high-end restaurant, and it is something
that is very trendy right now,” he says.
This item features four mini burgers topped with cheese.
“Whenever we do an LTO, we think outside the box,” Bulgarelli says. “If it doesn’t sell, we know it’s not a big winner, although these were all great winners.”
The facts back that up.
“We typically see an opt-in rate of 10 [percent] to 12 percent, where people migrate from the core menu onto the limited-time offer,” Warne says. “This one was probably closer to 20 percent. So the opt-in rate on these items was really high.”
A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., Bulgarelli joined O’Charley’s from Carlson Restaurants Worldwide. His interest in cooking goes way back.
“I was blessed with a family that loved food. I am 50-percent Italian and 50-percent Polish, and both of my grandmothers were the best cooks,” he says. “On certain holidays it would be Polish food, and on other days it would be Italian.
“I have a lot of cousins,” he continues, “and they would all be playing together somewhere, and I would be with my grandmothers in the kitchen. I was fascinated by food by the time I was 9 or 10 years old.”