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In the Kitchen: Not just one of the crowd

T.G.I. Friday's relies on fun and brassy flavors to set its seafood selections apart from the competition

Grilled Shrimp Key West on skewers punches up flavor with a citrus-based broth. - Photo courtesy of T.G.I. Friday's
By Joanne Friedrick
April 01, 2006

Polarization isn’t a word most people would associate with menu planning, but at Carrollton, Texas-based T.G.I. Friday’s, “big, big flavors” separate the timid diners from the brave souls who are looking for some adventure on the menu.

“Polarization within reason is a good thing,” explains Phil Costner, vice president of research and development for food and beverage at the 41-year-old casual-dining chain owned by Carlson Restaurants Worldwide.

Costner says too many family-oriented restaurants take the approach of creating middle-of-the-road flavors that won’t offend by being too spicy, too strong or too creative.

T.G.I. Friday’s is bringing bold flavor into the seafood category, along with more innovative preparation methods.

“For the longest time,” Costner says, “outside of a couple of instances, seafood was deep fried” for items like fish and chips and fried shrimp.

He acknowledges that the chain, which has about 550 domestic locations in 47 states and another 256 international sites in 54 countries, won’t ever have a huge seafood category. But he notes that T.G.I. Friday’s is definitely moving toward preparing fish at the grill and sauté stations instead of in the deep fryer.

An early success in this evolution was the introduction of bronzed grouper, says Costner. More recently, the company switched from grouper to tilapia, featured in offerings like its roasted Bruschetta Tilapia, which features a tomato-basil salsa and a balsamic glaze.

“These are big flavors that aren’t regularly found on seafood,” explains Costner, who received his training at the Culinary Institute of America and worked in hotel restaurants like the Four Seasons and held executive posts for American Airlines’ Sky Chef and Universal Studios.

This menu item is also low-fat, which Costner says “is relevant for today’s guests.”

Shrimp has undergone a transformation as well with the addition of Shrimp Key West, which is skewered, grilled and served with a citrus broth made from orange, grapefruit and lemon.

In this case, the selection fits another health category — low-carb.

“Even though the low-carb craze is waning, there are still a lot of people who are eating it,” notes Costner.

He says most customers today prescribe not to a specific diet regimen, but instead “the diet today is ‘my’ diet. It’s whatever they want it to be.”

As a result, says Costner, the seafood category is important, because it represents variety, relevance to today’s dietary needs and a range of flavor opportunities.

While Costner declined to share actual sales numbers for seafood vs. other categories within the menu, he says sales are comparable to those for sandwiches.

“It’s a quietly growing category,” adds Costner.

By putting its focus on tilapia and shrimp, Costner says T.G.I. Friday’s is addressing another issue that’s critical to a large chain operation — supply. He says the switch to tilapia from grouper “was mainly a supply issue. Tilapia is a commodity product and is farmed pretty strongly.”

Costner says its growing use and popularity “is like what orange roughy was in the ’80s.”

Tilapia “is an easy fish to understand and work with,” he adds. “If it’s prepared correctly, you are in for a neat flavor experience.”

Farmed salmon, which T.G.I. Friday’s offers grilled with a sweet-and-spicy Jack Daniel’s bourbon glaze, is another example of a popular and readily available species.

“We have so many restaurants, we have to be somewhat careful” about what species to use to ensure consistent availability, says Costner.

All the seafood is acquired through the company’s strategic sourcing division.

“We work very hard on seeking national distributors,” explains Costner, adding that it isn’t hard with commodity items like shrimp, salmon and tilapia.

But it’s also important, he says, to have access to multiple sources in case weather or other issues hinder distribution.

“When you’re spread out as much as we are, you have to deliver under every circumstance,” he says.

Consistency in supply is just one area the company targets; consistency in recipe execution is another.

“When we develop a new recipe, we have to figure out a number of ways to get it right,” says Costner.

There are variances in kitchen equipment, and that has to be taken into consideration, he says.

Videos are used to give kitchen staffs a visual guide as to how the fish should look when it’s finished and how the entrée should be plated.

“Bronzing is as much about color and texture” as it is about cooking time, says Costner.

Teachers and coaches also go into the various establishments to show how to prepare new dishes. But even before an item reaches the everyday menu, Costner says it is first flight tested, and feedback is sought from both guests and staff.

As a result, he says, new products aren’t launched at the rate they are in single-site restaurants.

“When I was a chef in hotels,” notes Costner, “we changed the menu daily. That was a breeze compared to now.”

In addition to looking at research and development of products in light of how they will work in each establishment and what supplies are  available to a large chain, Costner says it’s also important to be aware of the bottom line.

“We judge our work on the same metrics as the operator does. We’re not successful until sales happen, costs stay in line and we grow the brand,” he says.

Gone are the days, notes Costner, when new-item creation “was a bunch of guys running around in white coats developing recipes and then having someone else make it work.”

Development for the future will continue to focus on non-fried fish and seafood, says Costner. It will be about introducing “innovative, huge flavors” rather than duplicating what is already out there.

“We’re not chasing the classics,” he states. “There will be no Dover sole with buerre blanc.

“Our food has to be fun and brassy.”

Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine


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