Restaurant-branded products have their advantages and their pitfalls, but make no mistake, there are numerous such products on grocery shelves.
Translating a foodservice item into a grocery shelf product requires the ability to deliver a product meeting the “gold standard” set in the restaurant. Initially, the brand name may draw consumers, but if the item does not provide the sensory experience found in the original restaurant, those sales are unlikely to grow.

When he worked at Kraft Foods, Tony Lagana, now president of Culinary Systems Inc., Palm City, Fla., said he always looked at what the fine-dining establishments were doing and considered those items the gold standards. He then would try to develop products as close to those standards as possible. Most restaurant branded foods, he says, are simply national chains moving items into the grocery store and, in that regard, the name is the essential ingredient.

When developing the retail version of CPK, CPK and Kraft intentionally chose pizza varieties that performed well in the restaurants and that they could replicate for the grocer’s freezer.
“The brand name is pretty important,” he says. “If Kraft puts the Taco Bell items out there, people are buying them because of the name. It's something they recognize, something they are currently consuming.”

However, the brand should not be the sole consideration. Taste, he notes, cannot take a secondary position. “(The product) has to taste like what the consumer would expect to find in the restaurant. That's where most (restaurant-branded products) fall down.”

That restaurant-quality experience was foremost on the mind of Rick Bayless, chef/owner of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo restaurants, Chicago, when he worked with co-packers to take a line of products into the grocery store. Indeed, the stated goal behind Frontera's at the time of initial development was to come as close as possible to the restaurant version in terms of quality and flavor profiles.

The Frontera line includes grill rubs, margarita mixes, salsas, spice blends and tortilla chips, which proved particularly time-consuming to bring to the shelf. The company would work for three years to develop the retail version of its tortilla chip. In Bayless' restaurant, the chips are hand-made from stone-ground corn tortillas. In manufacturing the retail version, the co-packer had to begin with corn kernels and grind them on-site, prepare tortillas, cutting and frying them into chips.

Lagana believes Frontera's sauces are a prime example of a retail product closely matching its restaurant counterpart. “When Bayless started, he wasn't going to do it unless he was comfortable and proud of the final product. He ensured they would be using the same ingredients. Of course, there would be some variation, but his primary goal was to make these things taste like they taste in the restaurant.”

In developing the Frontera line, Bayless’ goal was to match as closely as possible the restaurant version.

What's in a Name?

With a chef's name on the product, much is at stake for the chef—perhaps even more than for national restaurant chains. As Lagana notes, the retail version cannot be a knock-off of what the chef does, because that could reflect poorly on that chef's primary responsibility—the restaurant.

“It really has to be the same product,” comments Lagana. “Granted, processing has come so far that a lot of processors use fresh vegetables (where they didn't just a few years ago), so it is easier to do now than ever before.”

That rationale may explain why more restaurant-related items are appearing on grocery shelves, a trend not relegated to gourmets. T.G.I. Friday's branded products were a boon to Anchor Food's, Appleton, Wisc., retail efforts, while Heinz, Pittsburgh, got a similar lift from the Boston Market line, Golden, Col., and California Pizza Kitchen (CPK), Los Angeles, hitched its retail wagon to Kraft Foods', Northfield, Ill., frozen pizza efforts. The restaurant-to-retail phenomenon has also hit fast food, as Kraft has a Taco Bell line of products, and White Castle has frozen versions of its small favorites.

Still, the question remains: Does that name ultimately help or hinder a product's chances?

Meeting consumers' expectations was key to CPK and Kraft in developing the retail version of CPK. The pair intentionally chose pizza varieties that performed well in the restaurants and that they could replicate out of the grocer's freezer. While a certain number of CPK's restaurant pizzas incorporate fresh salsas, guacamole, lettuce or sour cream, those were not among the options explored for the freezer.

Instead, they opted to use fresh-frozen herbs and vegetables to help minimize the perceived differences between the restaurant and frozen versions. Another boost to the CPK line was Kraft's then-new DiGiorno rising-crust pizza technology. This dough increases in volume during baking, and the thicker crust helped to emulate the CPK restaurant-style pizza experience.

A couple of CPK's varieties are of the expected sort. Certainly, nothing is unusual about a sausage, pepperoni and mushroom combination or a five-cheese and tomato offering, but other options include BBQ chicken, garlic chicken, roasted portobello mixed mushroom, rosemary chicken-potato and Thai chicken. Further separating the CPK offering is the size. The nine-inch, single-serving retail version is yet another trait common to the restaurant varieties.

No Match

In certain instances, however, the restaurant version is avoided entirely. Anchor's retail version of its foodservice-popular Poppers debuted in 1996 to great success, but developers did not endeavor to duplicate the taste of the products found in the restaurants. Michael Truby, R&D manager—new products with Anchor notes, “We were, however, seeking restaurant quality products that tasted good and were consistent.”

An example of this is the T.G.I. Friday's mozzarella cheese sticks. The traditional restaurant version is a tube, but in seeking faster heat-up times in a home oven, Anchor incorporated a flat-plank shape. Truby found three major differences in developing for foodservice as opposed to retail:

1. Packaging is a bigger challenge for the retail varieties. Even in market testing, the product requires colorful graphics, marketing copy and the nutrition facts panel. In the foodservice arena, the packaging is much simpler, not even requiring a nutrition statement.

2. Par-frying enables retail products to be heated in the oven, while foodservice products are fried in the restaurant. Par-frying also ensures the proper color and texture out of the oven.

3. Products are smaller at the retail level. Dips for foodservice customers are in six-ounce portions, while in retail, the portion is four ounces.

T.G.I. Friday's line has grown to include frozen versions of it cheddar and bacon potato skins, Buffalo wings, spinach and artichoke dip, and black bean and cheese dip. The brand also can be found in other areas, including the salted snack arena, where potato skins, snack chips, ultimate jalapeno fire bites and loaded nachos are found. Lagana notes that T.G.I. Friday's retail version of its margarita mix works well (as do most branded beverage mixes, salsas and sauces) because the mixes themselves are the same as those used in the restaurants.

When Heinz launched the 16-item frozen meal line, Boston Market was a restaurant in dire financial straits. The brand would report the most-successful first-year sales in company history.

A Brand for All Reasons

Such products enable the consumer to replicate the restaurant experience in the home, but Lagana believes manufacturers should consider consumer reasoning as it is applied in the grocery store versus in the restaurant.

“Purchase reasoning in a restaurant as opposed to a grocery store is completely different. People buy for many different reasons in a supermarket, and this is a completely different reasoning process than they use when they go into a restaurant. Expectations are set at a certain level, and those expectations are not met. Consumers do not have a restaurant mindset when they go to the grocery store, so their purchase decision is very different and depends on the time of week, the meal they have to prepare, how busy they are, what the kids will eat. These are things they don't think about when they go to a restaurant. In a restaurant, they go there to be entertained, the atmosphere, etc.”

In certain instances, the retail version may prove more enticing than the restaurant itself. The Boston Market chain was in bankruptcy when Heinz launched that line of frozen meals. These restaurant-style selections were geared to consumers craving mealtime solutions combining signature recipes, hearty portions, premium quality and full flavor with quick, easy, heat-and-serve convenience. Accounting for $130 million in first-year sales, Boston Market was quickly a “powerhouse” for Heinz, says Neil Harrison, then president and CEO of Heinz Frozen Foods, which had secured a 10-year license to use the Boston Market brand.

The T.G.I. Friday’s line of blenders use the restaurant name, and provide the consumer the same mix used in the restaurants.
Much credit goes to strong consumer awareness of the restaurant brand in a successful retail version. However, when purchasing a retail version of a foodservice favorite, consumers are asked to pay a steeper price. Particularly, products with a chef's name can be significantly more expensive. As Lagana warns, “From a grocery store perspective, a little bit of the value is lost, in that these products are high-dollar in comparison with a standard retail brand. Granted, they may be high-quality pizzas, salsas, etc., but there is a value proposition that the manufacturers may need to re-evaluate.”

The perceived value of a product may increase in the case of signature items. There are a limited number of items which are virtually synonymous with the restaurant itself. Lagana suggests possibilities lie in Hooters hot wings and hot butter sauces, or in the Bloomin' Onion from Outback Steakhouse. Such products are signatures of those specific restaurant chains and may serve as an at-home indulgence. Furthermore, the fact that these foods are so completely intertwined to a specific restaurant could be a blessing, as consumers may allow a little more leeway in their expectations.

Website Resources

www.tgifridays.com — T.G.I. Friday's
www.heinz.com — H.J. Heinz Co.
www.cpk.com — California Pizza Kitchen
www.kraft.com — Kraft Foods