Which operators are making the greatest strides in evolving their product offer, who stands out for their approach to pricing? Steve Gotham looks at what data from MCA’s Menu Tracker can tell us on the crucial subjects of price and product innovation.

Last month, we highlighted a number of operators for impressive performances on various consumer feedback metrics.

This time, I want to focus on some of the findings from MCA’s Menu Tracker. In particular, who is doing what with the critical challenge of managing price and which operators are standing out in terms of refining their product offerings? MCA’s Menu Tracker analysis covers 152 leading operators across casual restaurants, fast food and pub chains, and with analysis of Autumn/Winter 2017 menus having recently been completed, it is timely to review some of the movers and shakers in the market.

Let’s talk about price …

In this new and unsettling world of rising food and ingredient cost inflation, no operator can avoid difficult decisions around how to mitigate and where best to pass on price rises. Across our 152 operators, three-quarters have put prices up on same-line dishes (same name and description starters, mains, sides and desserts) since Autumn/Winter 2016.

‘Award’ for highest price rises on same-line dishes: Contemporary Fast Food – Abokado; Restaurant chain – Thai Square

Clearly there is an Asian connection and product import link operating here (with high increases also evident at the likes of Tampopo, Giggling Squid and Chaophraya), but with an annual average increase of 17%, Abokado heads the same-line dish price leader board. To be fair to Abokado, its high average price rise as a percentage is exaggerated by its relatively low price points, and so in absolute sterling terms, the rises are less marked, if still adding up for consumers. Significant price increase examples include the brand’s sushi products, River Run (up 29%) and Lucky 13 (up 23%).

At Thai Square, 77 same-line dishes increased by an average of 13%. Here, more thrifty consumers might be advised to avoid the Chi Chi Sea Bass, which has increased by 29% or £5 to £21.95.

Largest price fall on same-line dishes: Winner – Strada; Commended – Frankie & Benny’s

Our tracker analysis found that six operators have in fact lowered their same-line dishes prices on average over the course of the last 12 months. Lowering the most, or perhaps that is better re-worded as re-positioning, is Strada, where prices fell by an average of 7%. Example products that are now more price competitive include, Tagiatelle Bolognese and Fiorentina, both of which have decreased by 9% from £10.95 to £9.95. Also within the casual dining marketplace is Frankie & Benny’s, where the management team is seeking to address some weakening value perceptions and boost footfall volume by investing more aggressively in price cuts and promotional activity. More affordable product examples include New York BBQ Chicken, which has decreased in price by 7% from £14.95 to £13.95, and Penne Arrabiatta, down by 6% from £8.95 to £8.45, as part of the overall average 4% fall.

Thinking now about product …

Product innovation is an important business competence for all manner of purveyors of food. Indeed, increasing the pace of NPD is highlighted as a Top 10 business challenge within MCA’s latest Top of Mind industry executive survey. Across the Menu Tracker operator assortment, 40 or 26% have at least one product on their menus flagged as either ‘New’ or ‘New recipe’. Of course this is not to say that more NPD is not occurring, just that this is all that operators are choosing to highlight to their customers.

Operator flagging the most new products: Winner – Giggling Squid; Commended – Brewers Fayre

As already highlighted, Giggling Squid is one of several Asian operators facing increasing food cost pressures and NPD offers a route to help offset price rises and mitigate their impact on consumers. Some more interesting new products, and which avoid certain seafood and fish cost pressures, include Crispy chicken stir fry, Crying Beef, Duck Larb and Pork Hock.

Meat dishes also feature among the new lines at Brewers Fayre, with examples including Smoky Paprika chicken and the mashed-up, Burger Pie. However, even a quick scan highlights how there is a strengthening presence of vegetarian alternatives. Fans of cheese will not be disappointed with the Mature Cheddar & Sticky Onion Tart, Melting Brie Bites or the new Mozzarella sticks.

There is no denying the increasingly popularity of more flexitarian diets, as well of course, of veganism, arguably one of the current fastest growing lifestyle trends. So, it is interesting to see which operators are keenest to be on trend, and have the most vegan flags or symbols on their menus.

Highest number of Vegan dish flags: Winner – Le Pain Quotidien

I doubt anyone will be surprised to learn that Tossed has a high number of vegan products, but it is actually pipped in first place by bakery chain, Le Pain Quotidien. Le Pain stands out for highlighting its vegan credentials with a grand total of 24 product flags. These run right across its menus and dayparts, including its Vegan Detox Bowl at breakfast, Chilli Sin Carne and Organic Lentil & Avocado Salad mains, and Raw Nut Cake dessert.

Most encouragement to sharing: Winner – Wahaca

While not in the same mega-lifestyle trend category as veganism, it was not that long ago when sharing was having a significant influence on menu composition and labelling. Indeed, the promotion of sharing options lives on, with its influence being boosted by the rise and rise of street food. Very much inspired by Mexican market eating and the affordability of small plates, Wahaca has the highest number of sharing options of any profiled operator at 19. Its menu includes 7 tacos, 4 quesadillas and 2 sharing selections. Cleverly, the selection choice is designed to appeal to both those new to Mexican cuisine and/or those on a tighter budget, with an ‘introductory’ option priced at £25 for 2 to share, as well as a ‘Mexican Feast’ for those more adventurous and indulgent customers happy to pay £42 for 2.

To conclude, just as at Wahaca and with all things in life really: You pays your money and you takes your choice. Perhaps this is a neat summation of the price and product tracking insights readily available from the Menu Tracker.Please speak to us for more information – you won’t go hungry!


Steve Gotham is MCA’s director of insight