The Next Hit Menu Item? Customer-Created

If you let them build it, they will come. That’s the idea, at least, behind recent create-your-own-menu-item contests at several top Canadian restaurant chains.

Capitalizing on consumers’ strong interest in customizing menu items and harnessing the power-to-the-people spirit of reality TV competitions, these contests can serve as a valuable way to build buzz around a brand and further the brand’s connection with loyal guests (who are any concept’s best word-of-mouth marketers). And thanks to social media, promoting and managing menu-creation contests has never been easier. Social-media-based contests add a layer of transparency for customers, too: Giving guests the opportunity to track how well their favourite items are doing may spur them to visit the concept’s website and social-media pages more often and to invite friends—who may or may not be well-acquainted with the brand—to visit and vote, as well.

Here’s a look at four chains looking to use menu-creation contests to help drive guest engagement:

  • Tim Hortons this week announced the return of the Duelling Donuts contest, which invites consumers to visit to design a doughnut and make a pitch for their creation’s addition to the Tim Hortons menu. The winner will receive $10,000 and see his or her doughnut appearing in Tim Hortons stores later this year. In 2013, Canadian actor Jason Priestley lent his star power to the iconic chain’s first doughnut-development contest, which drew more than 63,000 entries. This year, Tim Hortons ups the ante with a panel of four famous Canadians (including Priestley) helping to narrow the field: Tim Hortons will fly eight contenders to chain headquarters in Oakville, ON, to make their case in person to the panel. Customers then will have the chance to vote from among four finalists. The contest is being promoted through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and on the Tim Hortons website.
  • Denny’s Canada launched its second annual MyDenny’s Dish Contest in May. The contest calls on guests to create a dish using items typically found in a Denny’s restaurant and then photograph the dish and submit the photo with an official application to Members of the MyDenny’s loyalty program are voting on submitted entries; a winner is expected to be announced later this month. The victorious item will be featured on menus in August, and its creator will receive $2,500 and a trip to Vancouver to create the dish in a Denny’s kitchen.
  • Subway Canada is hosting a Build a Winner sweepstakes on its Facebook page. The contest, which promotes the fact that customization-oriented Subway offers more than one million combinations of bread, protein, toppings and condiments, lets guests build their own virtual sandwich for a chance at a $1,000 grand prize and weekly prizes of $100 Subway gift cards. Unlike other chains, Subway will select winners at random on Fridays through August, and there is no promise of highlighting winning entries on menus. However, guests have the opportunity to submit new creations every day before August 29.
  • Boston Pizza announced last month that Pizza Cake—a multilayered cake-shaped pizza—was the winner of its Pizza Game Changers promotion, developed in honor of the chain’s 50th anniversary. Though the contenders in this contest were developed by the chain rather than by guests, the contest itself generated strong buzz by virtue of how out-there the “Game Changers” were. Among the pizza-inspired creations vying for mass production by Boston Pizza were the Pizza Protector, a pizza-slice-shaped container for storing leftover pizza. (A separate Pizza Game Changers menu, featuring such new items as a Sriracha Chicken Pizza and a Pizza Taco, also was part of the promotion.) Guests now can follow Boston Pizza on Facebook and Twitter to learn about the Pizza Cake’s development and how/when they will have the chance to try one.

As we see, menu-creation contests offer myriad ways to involve guests in the menu-development process and to showcase the menu variety they can find in stores every day. From a logistical standpoint, how can operators prevent build-our-next-menu-item contests from becoming a back-of-the-house nightmare? Reserve the right to make changes to the winning recipe based on product availability and operational needs, of course. And commit to featuring the winning entry on menus for a very limited time—one month is a popular choice. If the item performs well and promises profitability, it can be added in original or modified form to the permanent menu, and/or it can serve as inspiration for new flavour pairings and menu platforms.



Darren Tristano

Darren Tristano is President of Technomic Inc. Since 1993, he has led the development of Technomic’s Information Services division and directed multiple aspects of the firm’s operations.

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