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In the Kitchen: Catch Alaska promos set Country Kitchen apart

Partnering with ASMI helps national chain test seafood items as specials before joining core menu

The versatile salmon burger is even featured at
    breakfast in Alaska-style Eggs Benedict. - Photo courtesy of ASMI
By Joan M. Lang
July 01, 2006

The tradition-bound family segment is not known as a leader in seafood sales. But as consumer interest in seafood and other "better-for-you" menu items grows, Country Kitchen Restaurants, a 145-unit national chain, intends to grow along with it.

"We want to set ourselves apart from the rest of the family-dining segment," says Donette Beattie, VP of purchasing and new-product development for the Madison, Wis.-based company, "and we see seafood as a significant menu-item category for us."

In addition to having standard performers like fried jumbo shrimp and battered Alaska cod on its core menu, Country Kitchen is experimenting with various non-fried seafood items. The chain is also having tremendous success with its annual Catch Alaska promotion, which wrapped up its second run in late April.

As with all its menu promotions, Country Kitchen's Lenten Catch Alaska program has proved a valuable testing platform for core menu-item additions. Last year's success with Alaska cod landed that item on the company's core menu, and this year's salmon burger - available both as a sandwich and in a salad - is likely to follow suit this fall.

Shrimp is already a major menu player for the company.

"Eight years ago, the fried-shrimp item was always in the middle to the bottom range in terms of the sales mix," says Marketing Manager Anne Richards. "Today it's near the top, either on its own or in combination with a steak."

In 2005 seafood captured approximately 3 percent of sales from a large menu mix that spans all day parts. During Catch Alaska, seafood sales more than doubled, to 7.5 percent.

Country Kitchen partnered with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute for the promotion, with ASMI helping to source product and negotiate with individual suppliers. This is an important consideration for a chain that has 121 locations in geographically diverse markets. Until this year, promotions have been voluntary for franchisees, but the 80 percent rate of compliance is testimony to the degree of support offered by headquarters, which covers every aspect of the operations as well as marketing considerations for each program.

"We lay it all out for them, in terms of getting both the products and [promotional] materials to them," notes Beattie. "And we contract on all the prices to protect their profitability."

This year's Catch Alaska menu featured seven different seafood items: sautéed wild Alaska salmon fillet (with a choice of dill, teriyaki or hollandaise sauce); a wild Alaska salmon "burger"; Alaskan Eggs Benedict (based on the same salmon patty as the burger); a battered Alaska cod dinner and sandwich; Buttermilk Biscuit Breaded Shrimp; and a combo plate with cod and shrimp. The cod dinner led sales, followed by the combo dinner and - surprisingly - the Benedict.

"That item was a real success for us," says Richards.

Part of the reason the item was so successful, he adds, is that the CK customer is already used to Benedicts from other promotions.

"Getting seafood onto a breakfast menu is a challenge for anyone," says Beattie, "and I have to admit that the product-development people gave us a funny look when we asked for a Benedict made with salmon. But the fact that we didn't have to bring in an additional SKU made all the difference; we figured, "We have the salmon patty, why not throw some hollandaise on it?"

The patty has been an interesting product for the company. ASMI worked with Trident Seafoods to pull the product through Country Kitch­en's network of 22 distribution houses.

"The key with any new product is getting the nationwide distribution," notes Beattie. "You have to be able to piggyback with other deliveries, especially in smaller markets."

Even customers who wouldn't ordinarily try a fish as distinctively flavored as salmon have gotten onboard with the patty - especially this year, when the menu description was changed to position the item as a salmon burger, rather than a salmon sandwich. (ASMI had suggested rechris­tening the sal­mon as a bur­ger for its second promotional run.)

"Our operators have reported seeing higher ordering on the item, and it was the fourth-best-selling selection in the Catch Alaska mix," says Richardson.

Because the burger can also be cooked to order on the char grill from the frozen state, there's no worry about forecasting or holding times for thawed product.

To fuel internal enthusiasm for the promotion, ASMI co-sponsored a Catch Alaska contest each year; in 2006 the grand prize was a trip to Alaska worth $5,000. Servers who meet certain sales criteria are automatically entered to win.

"This is a big deal to be able to offer this kind of incentive to sell, sell, sell," says Richards. "T-shirts are fine, but a prize like this brings big news to a promotion."

Although the summer menu was finalized before all the results from the second seafood promotion were in, and the patty won't be on the core menu this season, the company expects to include it in some form this fall. During each promotion, the product-development team also tests additional choices for the following year in a four- to six-unit test market; in the case of Catch Alaska, the test locations were in the upper Midwest - which has a longstanding Friday-night-fish-fry tradition.

This year, the company will have tested a wahoo burger and a broiled salmon fillet for possible inclusion in the 2007 menu, as well as a salad that features a topping of julienned salmon patty with lemon-chipotle vinaigrette.

"Testing these items during promotions gives us permission to try different things. Otherwise, you'd never take the calculated risk," says Beattie.

Promotions have been so valuable for Country Kitchen that, starting this summer, they will no longer be voluntary, but there will be only four per year, rather than five or six. The promo menu will be printed as a special insert for the center of the regular menu, which will allow the core menu to be changed more frequently to respond to culinary trends. The longer promotional cycle will also allow customers to enjoy new favorite specials longer.

"We can change out items more quickly if they're not working, and add them to the core menu more quickly if they are," says Beattie.

Meanwhile, says Richards, "You'll definitely be seeing more seafood on the Country Kitchen menu. It's a huge window of opportunity for us."

 

Contributing Editor Joan M. Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine

 

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