Noodles & Co. delving into dinner

by Monica Watrous    View Me on Google+
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NEW YORK — From gluten-free fusilli to non-G.M.O. noodles, food trends drive much of the menu strategy at Noodles & Co. The Broomfield, Colo.-based fast-casual chain said it also offers vegan and vegetarian options.

“(When) you think about one of the newest trends out there, G.M.O.-free, all of our pastas are G.M.O.-free,” said Keith Kinsey, president and chief operating officer, during a June 10 presentation at the Piper Jaffray Consumer Conference in New York. “There are some of the sauces that might have a hint of that in them depending on the ingredient, but from a base, the biggest element of our dish is G.M.O.-free.”

Limited-time offers allow the chain to “test the waters” with on-trend flavors and ingredients, Mr. Kinsey said.

“If there are trends on something, whether it’s a ramen noodle or something like that, it is so easy for us to actually do it within the restaurant; it is more of a matter of is the trend truly there and are we willing to address that,” he said.

But customization is key to staying fresh, he added. Noodles & Co. emphasizes the breadth and variety of its menu combinations, which span Asian, Mediterranean and American cuisines.

“From the standpoint of not growing stale, when I think about it and being able to talk to a guest about how you can customize… there are so many iterations of our menu,” Mr. Kinsey said. “It is more about education than it is about change.”

Customer engagement also figures into the chain’s plans to expand its dinner day part. Noodles & Co. recently began adding elements of table service during the evening hours.

“Part of our DNA is that we actually from the beginning, we started our first restaurant in 1995, serve your meal on real china to your table,” said Dave Boenninghausen, chief financial officer. “So there is already a little bit of an enhanced level of service versus some of the other fast casual brands certainly versus Q.S.R. Positions us very strongly with the dinner, positions us very strongly with families.”

Increased interaction with customers during dinner hours also positions Noodles & Co. to compete against the $80 billion casual-dining segment, he said.

“What we decided to do was, starting about two years ago, it is kind of a slow roll-out, a slow test of an enhanced very focused line of coffee, tea and desserts, a little bit better lineup of beer and wine,” Mr. Boenninghausen said. “And so training our team to have those nuances of hospitality we have been able to understand, okay, this person, they are having a great time; they might be interested in a second glass of wine. This person didn’t finish their meal; maybe we should ask them what is going on.”

The enhanced service initiative has been rolled out to 20% of the company’s restaurants, where Noodles & Co. said it has seen a modest lift in average check.

“In terms of the opportunity, first off just from a pure math perspective there is opportunity to lift average check at the dinner day part, but about 50-50 lunch and dinner,” Mr. Boenninghausen said. “When you look at the dinner day part, about 60% of those folks who dine in, 40% are takeout. So 30% of our guests are right in the wheelhouse of this initiative in terms of sitting down for dinner usually with their family. If we can get a 5% to 10% lift in average check by bringing some more attachment to desserts, to beer and wine, that has a significant long-term opportunity.”
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