Featured Article: The Hidden Side of Secret Menus

Can you keep a secret? You can try but let’s face it, sooner or later most secrets get leaked. This is precisely the point of the latest craze that has swept over the food industry – hidden offerings. This trend has been adopted by many operators across the country, bringing an array of benefits and excitement to establishments. On the surface, secret menus can appear counterintuitive. It seems logical for businesses to openly communicate to consumers about every single item they can offer. However, it can actually be a fruitful and clever strategy. The first question, “Who has a secret menu?” A quick online search surprisingly yields dozens of results from different culinary establishments. If you frequent any of these places you may feel left out, or on the contrary, you may feel like an insider if you already know the secret items available. And that’s exactly the idea behind this strategy – reward loyal customers and make them feel special. Last time I visited one of my favorite places, Chipotle, I asked the operator for their secret menu. Despite the funny looks from the patrons behind me, the operator had no choice but to crack a smile and explain some of the off-the-menu alternatives. However, the question remains: what’s the driving force behind this trend?

“Restaurants and fast food establishments have always permitted customers to modify products: for example: would you like cheese with that burger?” explains Dr. Jared M. Hansen, assistant professor of marketing at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, N.C. “However, the more innovative ideas that repeat customers develop can now become viral trends of secret menu items’ through near instantaneous national or global word-of-mouth through texting, tweeting or Facebook posting.”

As Dr. Hansen points out, secret offerings originated from the customer’s feedback and have evolved towards a strategy to please and reward loyal customers through social media or customer loyalty programs. In many cases it’s simply a convenient way to have a registered price item in the system so that the personnel can ring up these special requests without managerial intervention. The premise
behind it speaks volumes for the establishment since it’s willing to proactively respond to patrons’ requests. However, as the concept has evolved, these items have become insider’s information.

In an interview for National Public Radio, senior food editor of Nation’s Restaurant News, Bret Thorn, explains, “If you have a secret menu or if customers know the secret menu, they feel like they’re insiders. They feel kind of a personal connection to the restaurant; they feel they know something that maybe not everybody else does. And everyone loves that.”

Although secret menus have been part of the industry for a while, companies are beginning to find different ways to communicate these unique offerings through evolved technologies. Social media and mobile devices allow companies to roll out new offerings efficiently without having to spend valuable resources on marketing collateral and point of purchase materials. In some cases this has provided an excellent opportunity to test novelties or stray away from the business’ core product offerings. Panera Bread for example has hidden menu alternatives that exclude an ingredient in the company’s name – bread. Scott Davis oversees the menus for Panera Bread and he explained during an interview for NPR that the company had been missing on diabetics and people who were cutting carbs or avoiding gluten, and this menu lets the company tap into that growing health-conscious market. Davis also shared, “It’s a lot easier to execute, not having to go through the printing of all the collateral materials, and ultimately cluttering up the café with too many messages.”

The industry is still exploring ways to utilize the secret menu, but before you consider it, make sure you have covered the basics. Most food chains have clearly identified their core business and have established solid lines of communication with their customers through websites, email marketing, text messages or social media. Although word of mouth is powerful, you can tenfold its capacity with these
technologies. Furthermore, make sure you have established your product offering in the consumer’s eye. But if you have these items covered, you are probably in a place where you feel the need to innovate and explore creative and customer-driven novelties.

Hidden offerings can be an efficient way to expand your lines and explore the next step your business should take. Evaluate your competitors and the industry itself to find the next big competitive advantage. In today’s world, your customers can be your most valuable resource. According to Dr. Hansen, “secret menus are a part of the evolution toward a coproduction model of production that is the centerpiece of an emerging service-dominant logic for marketing. Customers are producing a lot of buzz for companies and are able to help shape the product in many cases.”

Where to start? First, talk to your staff to find out about all the odd requests they have heard from customers. Perhaps you will find a pattern. That’s how most secret menu items are born. Explore these requests and identify the idea behind them. These desires may be driven by health concerns, flavor cravings or novelty yearnings.

Next, think versatility. Most items on secret menus are existing ingredients applied in different ways. Ask, what can be easily added to your kitchen’s capability to create something unique? Think outside the box, and don’t be afraid to be too radical – secret items are low-risk strategies that can be abandoned easily if they don’t work out as expected. The level of commitment is relatively low, but the benefits on the other hand aren’t limited to simply creating buzz and excitement in your client base. Secret items have the potential to finding the next step your business should take.

Finally, as you determine your secret menu’s specific objectives, you’ll be able to determine the lines of communication that will deliver the message fittingly. Social media can be ideal for many establishments since it’s a casual context that only committed clients check. Furthermore, you’ll reward them for checking in with you and they will develop a personal connection to your establishment, creating a conversation around novelties or special items. People miss the feeling of being treated as a regular, and although your staff can still treat frequent customers this way, you’ll provide another opportunity for even more people to feel connected.

If your secret menu becomes massively known among your customers it can lose some of the mystique that came with its launch. To avoid this, consider launching hidden items in specific locations only, certain seasons of the year, days of the week or hours of the day. You can also try launching new products frequently to keep customers on their toes. Keep in mind that this can be a fun strategy to follow through with and constantly engage the core of your clients.

Last, perhaps your strategy will go beyond creating excitement, and you’re looking to capture a new demographic or stray away from the core of your product offering. If this is the case, you may limit the secret menu’s longevity and employ it as a testing stage for these new items to avoid under-tapping potential customers by keeping your offerings a secret.

Regardless of your objective, consider the efficient power that hidden items provide – significant returns on a relatively low commitment of investment. However, the ultimate benefit is that you’ll be rewarding loyal customers with the empowering feeling of knowing something nobody else does.