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In the Kitchen: Mix-and-match menuing works for Raving Brands

Expanding national franchise leverages its buying power for multiple concepts

Seafood spans the menu at Boneheads, where Piri Piri
    Shrimp (inset) is a signature. - Photo courtesy of Raving Brands
By Joan M. Lang
October 01, 2006

Raving Brands has good reason to pay attention to seafood. The Atlanta-based company has nine different fast-casual concepts in its portfolio, including Moe's South­west Grill, Mama Fu's Asian House and Bone­heads Grilled Fish and Piri Piri Chick­en, where about 65 percent of total sales are seafood.

Raving Brands is also one of the fastest-growing franchise companies in the country, with plans in place for an aggressive quadrupling to more than 2,000 units across the country by the end of this decade. With all but a few of each concept in the hands of franchisees, the company must keep its systems buttoned up tight.

"The whole idea is to simplify," says Seth Salzman, senior VP and chief "brand hand" for Boneheads, who started with Raving Brands as VP of operations for the flagship Moe's Southwest Grill. "We want to create brands that really resonate with customers and are franchisable, so that we can help the entrepreneurs who join us as franchisees make money. And that means everything's got to fit together and run smoothly."

Key to the success of all of the brands - which also include such limited-selection concepts as Planet Smoothie and PJ's Coffee - is a mix-and-match menu strategy that lets customers select which protein to build their meal on. At Moe's, patrons choose among burritos, tacos, fajitas and so on, with a choice of chicken, steak, ground beef, fish or tofu. Mama Fu's fans can enjoy made-to-order pan-Asian stir fries like Red Thai Curry, fried rice, pad Thai or teriyaki with chicken, beef, shrimp or tofu and veggies. Doc Green's build-your-own salads can be topped with an array of proteins, from grilled portabello mush- rooms and crispy chicken tenders to grilled sirloin steak and chilled poached salmon.

"That's what our customers love about us," says Daniel Barash, who has his hands on all the menus as director of new product development. "They can get what they want, and because everything is made to order, they know it will be fresh."

The Boneheads franchise - one of the newer concepts, with a 2005 debut - is the company's foray into fast-casual seafood. The menu centers on simple grilled fish and chicken preparations, with a special nod to the piri piri pepper, a flavorful South African spice that is the core of the concept's proprietary seasoning blend and sauces. Selections include charbroiled salmon, tilapia, mahimahi, shrimp, grouper and crispy fish and chips, with a choice of topping (pineapple salsa, cucumber-lime and yogurt, sautéed piri piri mushrooms) and dipping sauce (lemon and herb); and grilled Piri Piri Chicken with any sauce. There are appetizers, such as Piri Piri Shrimp, Crispy Calamari and peel-and-eat shrimp, as well as sandwiches, tacos and salads with a choice of protein.

Boneheads drives the rest of the Raving Brands stable in the seafood category. Although just five units strong at this point, the concept gives the company a strong incentive to leverage species into the other menus, where seafood exists as an option rather than a specialty of the house.

Raving Brands just added a Baja-style fish taco to the menu at Moe's, which has 330 units in three-dozen states. The item is a variation of the popular fish taco introduced at Bone­heads; the fish, farm-raised basa from Vietnam, is also available as a protein option in Moe's other specialties.

"We put fish tacos on the menu because we wanted another protein option that was affordable for us and for our customers, and because as we moved into the Southwest and Cali­fornia, we were running into more competitors with fish tacos," explains Barash.

Tested for four months in 10 markets, Moe's fish taco was rolled out system-wide at the beginning of the summer and exceeded sales expectations.

"We're selling an average of 30 pounds of whitefish in each unit across the board," says Barash. "And that's just with in-house marketing."

The Raving Brands team, a fluid core of foodservice professionals who work across all the different concepts as need dictates, investigated a number of species for Moe's fish tacos.

"We tried 10 or 12 different kinds of fish at the price point we can afford," says Salzman. "Cod, pollock, tilapia; we hadn't been familiar with basa, but it outperformed every other species in terms of flavor, quality and holding."

Now, basa is used wherever a menu cites "fish," as in the fish and chips and the fish taco at Boneheads.

"It's a great product," says Barash. "It's mild and flaky and keeps its moisture when held."

With a fast-casual menu, this last characteristic is particularly important. "When we do cuttings, we not only blind-taste the product, we also put it through a typical holding period before tasting it, so we can see how it will really perform in operations."

The testing is part of the commitment that Raving Brands has made to its 300-plus franchisees. Menu items, procedures and systems have all been rigorously designed and put in place, allowing the individual owner-operators to hit the ground running.

"Because of our growing buying power, it makes sense to use as many products as possible across all the brands," notes Barash, "especially with something like seafood, which we bring in only in the frozen state."

Grouper, the No. 1 fish on Bone­heads' menu, is being tested as an option at Mama Fu's. The company is also looking at purchasing identical shrimp across all the operations, "as long as we can do it without compromising the integrity of the individual menus," says Salzman.

Purchasing is consolidated wherever possible. The company counts on its distributor-partners in each major market to bring in product to a central point, coordinating shipping from a group of preferred suppliers and delivery to the different brand concepts.

"We will change the spec on something popular like shrimp in order 
to be able to use the same source across all the different brands," notes Salzman.

"We have procedures for everything, and that's particularly important when you're working with a product like seafood," he adds. "We want to make it as idiot-proof as possible, so that we keep things simple, safe and at the highest possible level of quality."

It's safe to say that there will be more seafood on Raving Brands' menus, and more concepts in the portfolio that sell fish.

"We're looking at all kinds of species," says Barash, "and we're constantly toying with ideas." LTO's [limited time offers] are a distinct possibility on a test basis, and it wouldn't be out of the question to see calamari or mahimahi making the transition from Boneheads to some of the other brands - or for additional species, such as scallops or mussels, to show up on any of the menus.

"As long as it fits within our system and can work in a simple and efficient kitchen setup, we are very interested in seafood," says Salzman.

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


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