The Social Kitchen

How some of the world’s most popular restaurants are using social media analytics to design their menus

It didn’t take long for Moe’s to realize that something was a bit off with its new pork.
After rolling out its new carnitas pork offering across the country, Moe’s expected a flood of consumers celebrating the crispy, spicy offering. Instead, on social media at least, the chain got a swarm of mostly negative comments.
“People kept saying ‘bring back the old pork!’” Victoria Nielsen, a social media manager at the company, told Crimson Hexagon. When the folks at Moe’s used social media analytics to dig into the conversation deeper, they realized that this was not a few isolated tweets — the new recipe just wasn’t cutting it with customers.
Initially, the folks at Moe’s were confused. They had tested and tweaked the pork extensively and were all but certain it would be a hit.
So what went wrong? Why was the new pork leaving customers with so many questions?
Buried in the social media conversation about Moe’s new pork was some important clues. Over and over again, customers were complaining that the pork tasted overcooked and too cinnamon-y.

When the findings were shared with the operations team, the implications were clear: the pork recipe itself was not the problem, it was how the individual restaurants were preparing the recipe.
“We knew that we needed to provide more education at individual stores around cooking time and the portion of cinnamon added to the recipe,” Nielsen told Crimson Hexagon.
Moe’s sprang into action. They shared videos and detailed preparation instructions across the organization.

“Restaurants are increasingly turning to social media to help them plan, perfect and iterate their menus.”

BookCover_Landscape_FocusDownload the full story of how FOCUS used social media analytics to improve its menu

The result? The pork was more uniform across Moe’s locations, and the social media reaction almost instantly became more positive.
“Two months [after the issue was addressed], overall conversation volume declined 74% and there was a 15% decline in general dislike,” Nielsen said. Moreover, the word cloud around the conversation became much more positive, and the phrase “bring back the old pork” had essentially vanished.

Although interesting on its own, the story of Moe’s pork is also important because it represents a larger trend spreading throughout the American food landscape: Restaurants are increasingly turning to social media to help them plan, perfect and iterate their menus.
But before we get to the specific ways that social media can help restaurant chains engineer their menus, let’s talk about how restaurants have historically approached the problem of updating their menus.

Seeing What Sticks

But knowing that chains must constantly evolve their menus is far easier than knowing how they should go about doing so. How can you know what customers are craving? How can you be sure you’re coming up with the right recipe to satisfy the largest share of your audience? What steps can you take to ensure that you’re staying ahead of your competition and consistently innovating?
In the past, many restaurants facing this problem resorted to trial and error. They would experiment with several different recipes until they found something that felt right. Or they would compile suggestions from guests and use them to identify holes in their menus.
From here, it was often a difficult process to determine how their new menu additions were doing. Anecdotal feedback from customers could help them see what was working (or not) with their new dishes. Sales data (often compiled well after the launch of a new dish) could help them see if the new dish was a smash hit or a dud.
More often than not, new menu items don’t pan out.
“For every idea that works, there are hundreds that fail to hit the mark,” The Journal reports. “Chains say it’s very rare for a product to make it past the testing stage.”
And this testing isn’t a formality: it is expensive, labor-intensive, and difficult to get right. Properly ideating and testing new menu items takes time and is not always accurate or representative.
In recent years, forward-thinking members of the restaurant industry (like Moe’s) have started to wonder if there’s a better way.
Since social media data has multiplied, and brands have started using it to inform business decisions, restaurants have found a new way to evolve their menus.
Which brings us back to Moe’s and the growing trend of social media-backed menu improvements.

Menu Innovation

Moe’s isn’t the only restaurant trying to keep its menu fresh and appealing. Across the country, restaurant chains — especially QSR and fast-food chains — are changing their menus more and more frequently. Whether this is to include, appeal to specific consumer segments, or just change for the sake of change, it has become increasingly clear that menu engineering is an essential part of staying ahead in the competitive restaurant landscape.
But how are these restaurants able to ideate, create, test, and tweak these new offerings so quickly?
As the Moe’s example highlights, an increasingly popular answer is social media analytics.
A recent article from Fast Casual explains the process in quite a bit of detail, especially how social media data can help these chains stay agile and test, iterate and validate new products.

“Agile insights methodologies allow marketers to quickly gather consumer feedback on a variety of inputs — ingredients, nomenclature, packaging — to validate decisions before significant product development and implementation dollars are put to work,” Rachel Schwartz wrote for the outlet.
This is especially important for gathering insights about consumer preferences as they evolve. What are today’s hottest flavors? What are consumers hungry (or thirsty) for? How are health trends affecting American dining choices?
And as social media becomes a more entrenched part of daily life, its uses for restaurant chains and other businesses multiply.

The Ghost in the Kitchen

Social media is in many ways the perfect test kitchen. Customers are always sharing their restaurant experiences on social platforms, discussing a new favorite food or a disappointing dish.
If restaurateurs and chefs could harness this conversation they could do three important things:

  • Identify which types of food and drinks consumers are clamoring for
  • Monitor the social response to a new menu item
  • Use social conversation to continuously iterate existing menu item performance

And, recently, industry-leading restaurant chains have started doing just that. The carnitas pork story outlined above is the perfect exemplification of how modern restaurants are changing the way they devise and monitor new menu items, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. As the largest source of unsolicited customer opinions, social media is an invaluable resource, not just for companies in the food and beverage industry, but in every industry.

To learn more about how Focus uses social media analytics to decisions across their brands, read our customer case study. 

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