Creating cravings - April 24, 2007

Devon and Bristol expansion focuses on individual restaurant identity
By Joan M. Lang

Watch out for upscale-casual seafood concept Devon and Bristol. After a few years’ hiatus, the seafood siblings of Houlihan’s Restaurants group are on the move again, with plans for two to three more locations in both established and new markets, focusing on affluent, high-density retail/residential markets.

“Being owned by Houlihan’s gives us the advantages of a chain as far as purchasing power and other synergies, but we manage and execute the seafood restaurants like an independent,” says Lou Ambrose, VP of specialty restaurants for Houlihan’s, who oversees not only the seven-unit Bristol Seafood Grill group, but also four J. Gilbert’s Wood-Fired Steaks locations.

The upscale-casual seafood grills have had a long and rather circuitous history. The first, Bristol Bar & Grill, was opened in 1980 by Houlihan’s founders Joe Gilbert and Paul Robinson in their hometown of Kansas City, Mo. With its stylish dark-wood and stained glass décor, exhibition kitchen and oyster bar and seafood-intensive menu, Bristol was unique for its time, especially in heartland America. Three more locations opened in short order, in St. Louis, Chicago and Atlanta, before a trademark glitch precipitated a name change: The company was enjoined from using the Bristol marque outside of Missouri, so it adopted Braxton, Chequers and Devon Seafood Grill (all names of port towns in England) in outlying markets. Future development will be under the Bristol Seafood Grill moniker in Missouri, and the Devon brand elsewhere.

Confusing, perhaps, but the multiple names serve to support the company’s strategy of operating each location as an individual entity, with its own chef and management team. Despite that autonomy, however, the group’s fortunes have been tied to those of its parent company. In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Houlihan’s — one of the earliest of the so-called “fern bars” launched in the go-go early ‘70s — was struggling with its own identity and put a stop on unit expansion. In January 2002, the company declared bankruptcy.

That same year the new owners brought in Bob Harnett, best known as the creator of Einstein Bros. Bagels, and the CEO engineered an all-points turnaround, putting a more sophisticated, adult-oriented Houlihan’s back on a growth track.

Harnett did the same for Bristol and Devon, too. New décor emphasizes a lighter, more modern ambiance, and the menu spotlights contemporary seafood signatures with an average check of $18 at lunch, $40 at dinner. Average annual unit volumes reach $5.5 million.

Positioning has been crucial as competition heats up in the seafood dinnerhouse segment. “There are a lot of good competitors out there,” admits Ambrose. The company has pursued business dining and other special occasions by taking advantage of semi-private banquettes seating four to 10 — a feature of the concept that goes back to the original location. With a core menu that extends to all seven locations, Bristol and Devon have upped the ante on quality with an all-scratch kitchen and daily deliveries of fish from all over the world, prepared in unique ways with distinctive accompaniments and sauces.

Best sellers include jumbo lump Maryland Style Crabcakes with Creole remoulade and mango tartar sauce; San Francisco Style Cioppino; and an unusual take on tuna tartare with pickled cucumbers, broken wasabi vinaigrette and housemade sesame crackers.

Sauces run to Cabernet reductions and Chardonnay beurre blanc — distinctive formulations that are also light enough to let the seafood shine through.

Accessories run the gamut from chive gnocchi and creamy lobster risotto to braised leeks and sweet potato bacon-corn hash. Even the corn crêpes for the enchiladas are made from scratch. Each unit chef has considerable leeway in designing seasonal specialties, such as Tandoori Marinated Tilapia and Pan Seared Potato Wrapped Grouper. In addition, there are always six to eight nightly fish specials, served broiled, grilled or seared. At any given time, the seasonal items might account for 33 to 50 percent of sales; a real hit might account for 60 to 70 orders a night out of 300 covers.

The real challenge, however, is executing a complex menu of scratch-made preparations and fresh seafood, which requires considerable skill to manage.

“Fresh seafood is much more difficult and demanding to work with than prime beef, in everything from shelf life to preparation,” he explains.

Daily delivery is key. At the Houlihan’s Restaurants support center in Kansas City, VP of Purchasing Murray Meikenhous contracts for seafood staples, such as shrimp, crab and calamari, and handles all purveyor inspections and specs. The individual chefs are responsible for their own daily ordering from a handful of primary suppliers (including Connelly Seafood in Boston), as well as local sources. “Otherwise, you simply can’t get the quality and freshness we want to provide our guests,” says Ambrose.

In addition, the local chefs have the support of VP of Culinary Dan Admire, Manager of Culinary Michael Pallante and Director of Culinary Operations George Atsangbe, who are collectively responsible for approximately 85 to 90 percent of the menu, and for chef training, follow-up and trouble shooting.

“For any significant new menu introduction, the chefs are brought here [to headquarters] for a three- to four-day training session,” explains Ambrose. In addition to the chef, each location has two sous chefs, for maximum culinary talent as well as a built-in succession plan.

Kitchen operating systems emphasize quality, waste reduction and productivity. “We have all that in place,” says Ambrose. “For instance, making chowder four times a week is cost- and quality-effective; making it every day is not. That puts a lot of importance on forecasting and purchasing.”

What matters most though, according to Ambrose, is the quality and passion behind the product. “With the menu we’ve developed, we’re creating cravings. That’s the best hook we have.”

Contributing Editor Joan M. Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine April 2007

Limited Time Offers: Seasons Eatings

Limited-time menu offerings celebrate the seasons and show off Houlihan's epicurean side.
By Monica Rogers, Contributing Editor -- Chain Leader, 5/1/2008

Seasons come and seasons go. And with them, a fresh slate of Chef's Specials appetizers, entrees, desserts and wines are featured at Houlihan's 30 company-owned stores. The seasonal limited-time offers take an upscale approach that has boosted the casual-dining chain's food and wine sales and check averages.

This month Leawood, Kan.-based Houlihan's launches its fourth seasonal-specific LTO, completing its first full-year, seasonal menu cycle. Shaped for spring, the fresh and lively lineup includes an appetizer of Warm Almond-Crusted Brie, $9.95, with fruit, fig-balsamic glaze, walnut-raisin crisps and fresh baby greens spritzed with fresh lemon juice. There's an entree of Seared Halibut Niçoise, $15.95, with red potato salad, haricot verts, tomatoes, Mediterranean olives, toasted mustard-seed vinaigrette and baby arugula with lemon. And Lemon Meringue Pie, $2.49, in a butter crust, rounds out the menu.

Since last summer, LTOs have included dishes Vice President of Culinary Dan Admire shaped to fit the seasons. Summer 2007 brought French Fried Asparagus, $7.95, coated with Provencal bread crumbs and served with lemon-horseradish crème. Fall meant Prime Top Sirloin, $18.50, with lobster macaroni and cheese, sage demi-glace and roasted vegetables, and a suggested wine pairing of an $8.99 Chilean merlot. Winter warmed with Hot Chocolate Cake, $2.49, oozing a truffle center and frothed with orange-flavored-liqueur cream.

Host of Benefits
Besides offering guests new tastes, the seasonal menus have produced numerous measurable benefits. 2007 specials nudged guest check averages up an average of 37 cents. During each three-month run, seasonal entrees accounted for 6.5 percent of sales with the summer menu, 9 percent with the menu in the fall, and 18 percent in the winter. Dessert sales have increased 10 percent to 15 percent overall since the switch to a seasonal-menu approach. And average wine sales per check increased 14 percent, thanks to printing a suggested wine pairing with each entree.

Guest perceptions have improved as well, according to Vice President of Marketing Jenifer Gulvik. “There's more understanding among guests that Houlihan's is serious about food,” she says. “The menus have caused guests to view us as more innovative and fresh. And research shows that if the perception of freshness is there, customers think the quality of the restaurant is higher.”

Despite the epicurean feel of the specials, the price points are in line with core menu items. The LTOs range in price from $7.95 to $9.95 for appetizers to between $13.50 and $23.50 for entrees.

Seasonal Savvy
Houlihan's took the seasonal-specials approach to its menu to offer fresh, interesting flavors in the simplest possible format. “You can't add seven new items to your core menu—there's just not enough space on the menu or on the cooking line to handle that,” says Gulvik. As well, frequent additions to the core means deletions would have to happen just as frequently. “And deletions are very difficult for guests to handle,” she says.

With a seasonal limited-time offer on the other hand, “guests get that this is not a permanent thing, so you have the fresh new-news benefits without the painful deletion piece,” Gulvik says.

Still, introducing a new LTO menu every three months has necessitated some operational changes. Houlihan's deleted several items from its core menu such as Mandarin chicken salad, Thai barbecue shrimp and potato skins appetizers, berry cobbler and cheesecake. Guests haven't missed the items, Gulvik says.

For the first time, Houlihan's also went to separate lunch and dinner menus. While all of the menu items offered at lunch are also available at dinner, the lunch menu has half the total menu items. Admire explains that abbreviating the offerings makes setup for lunch easier, freeing up time to prep seasonal menu items prior to dinner.

To help train restaurant chefs, Houlihan's shoots detailed videos on each recipe method in the test kitchen. “This has worked really well for us because every regional director, chef and cook in the company has an opportunity to view the preparations,” Admire says. Of all the seasonal dishes, he says desserts present the biggest training challenge, “because baking's an art as well as a science.”

Shaping the program, Houlihan's took its cue from upscale independent restaurants. “We're constantly talking about where America's palate is going,” says Gulvik. Admire develops about 20 trial dishes for every item that makes the specials menu.

As indicated by entree sales, Houlihan's menu team has “gotten savvier with each subsequent menu, delivering fare that's interesting and epicurean, but not to the point of scaring people off,” says Gulvik, explaining that some of the dishes from the first menu like cold soba noodles and whole bone-in catfish were just a little bit too “out there.” The company has had better success with filleted fish dishes such as last summer's Almond-Crusted Tilapia, $17.95, with amaretto beurre blanc, fresh seasonal berries and grilled asparagus. It is the top-selling seasonal entree to date.

Fueling the program's success, servers are trained to use the seasonal menus as a talking point to drive repeat visits, especially as each menu nears the end of its run. “A server might say, 'If you love that dessert, make sure you come back before April 23,'” Gulvik explains.

Also beneficial, each unit prints the name of the unit chef on the menu, just as a fine-dining establishment might do. “It really gives the chef pride of place and a sense of ownership in the execution of these dishes,” says Gulvik.

Currently seasonal menus are only available at Houlihan's company stores and a half-dozen franchises. While feedback has been good, the company is not requiring franchisees to jump on board just yet. It wants to get a few more of the seasonal menus under its belt before re-evaluating its stance on franchise participation.

“Reducing the core menu, going to separate lunch and dinner menus, and committing to a new menu every three months is a pretty significant step,” Gulvik says. “We're eager to see how the spring menu performs and are already shaping the summer menu to launch in July.”

Grilled to Perfection

Grilled to Perfection
Jan 1, 2007 12:00 PM, RH Staff

There's a new, upscale eatery in Chicago's River North neighborhood. This chic and modern space, with its dark woods and hues of chocolate brown and vibrant orange, has been described as having an "upscale vibe…sort of W Hotel feel." On any given Friday night, its lounge chairs and sexy banquettes are occupied by some of the city's most fashionable residents. But Devon Seafood Grill's sophistication and style belie its humble pedigree. The three-unit chain is actually the offspring of Houlihan's Restaurants.

The connection is not obvious. Devon shares nothing with the kitschy dining rooms and casual menu most of us associate with the Houlihan's name. But to be fair, even Houlihan's itself has grown up. Gone is the wacky, flea-market style that it, along with chains like T.G.I. Friday's, made famous in the 1970s and clung to through the 1990s.

Big changes came for Houlihan's after the aging company went through Chapter 11 reorganization in 2001, bringing in a new CEO to give the flagship brand a second life. Robert Harnett, former chairman of Einstein's/ Noah Bagel Corp., set the company on a new course, which involved a makeover for the tired Houlihan's brand. Out went the tacky moose heads, replaced by simple, framed art and display kitchens. Potato skins were jettisoned in favor of martinis and little plates of seared tuna.

Which brings us back to Devon Seafood. While Houlihan's Restaurants was growing its eponymous chain, it was also developing other concepts, albeit at a much slower pace. Included in these projects was a small chain of separately named, but alike-in-concept seafood restaurants. These restaurants operated under the names Bristol Bar and Grill in Kansas City and St. Louis, Braxton Seafood Grill in Chicago and Chequers Bar and Grill in Atlanta. When expanding to Philadelphia in 1998, the company adopted the name Devon Seafood Grill, and chose to maintain this moniker while tinkering with plans to expand to 20-plus markets. Houlihan's has since opened Devon Seafood Grills in Chicago and, just last November, Milwaukee.

A look at Devon's numbers shows why Houlihan's has faith in this fish house. While food costs are on the high side at 31 percent, average unit sales are an impressive $5.5 million on lunch checks that average $17 and dinner checks that average $40.

Devon's strengths, according to vice president of operations and brand steward Lou Ambrose, include its casualelegant decor and its accessible service. "Compared to other upscale seafood restaurants, our ambiance is less stuffy; you would be comfortable dressed more casually. We have the look and feel of someplace you'd go on a regular basis." He says the same of Devon's service. "It's warm and genuine, not stuffy at all, and much more welcoming" than most restaurants with comparable price points.

"We're seafood, but we're not just competing against other seafood restaurants. We're positioned to compete against the entire upscale dining segment," Ambrose says.

The restaurants are chic and sleek in decor, and each is a bit different from the others. All feature community tables, private rooms for even the smallest parties and tucked-away, romantic booths. Even the lounges have secluded enclaves for private conversation.

The company believes Devon Seafood Grill fills a niche that will continue to make it a viable business. "Seafood is a hot item right now," says Ambrose. "Our strategy is to offer creative signature items that people will try once and crave again."

In addition to a broad menu, Devon offers daily specials based on availability. From littleneck clams to San Francisco-style cioppino, there's enough variety to keep seafood fans interested. Any given night features about 10 specials. On offer one recent evening in Chicago were such diverse choices as Lake Superior Whitefish, Costa Rican Tilapia, Norwegian Atlantic Salmon, Hawaiian Mahi Mahi and Rushing River Rainbow Trout. Served with potatoes and fresh vegetables, prices for the specials ranged from $17.50 to $27.50.

The core menu includes such standards as Maine lobster tail ($29.95), shrimp scampi (18.50) and a mixed grill of shrimp, scallops, salmon and a jumbo lump crab cake ($29.50). For inspiration, a team made up of Ambrose, CEO Robert Hartnett and culinary VP Dan Admire travels to top seafood restaurants around the country. Their most memorable experience, Ambrose recalls, occurred several years ago at Striped Bass in Philadelphia, whose grouper, bass and "great, cutting-edge sauces" he still remembers. Such experiences shaped Devon's focus on procuring the freshest possible products and infusing them with bold flavor. "We realized that the successful seafood restaurant would have to evolve the menu and continually move the guest experience forward," Ambrose says.

Pushing Personalities
One way Devon Seafood Grill is already distinguishing itself is through various ethnic menu influences. The Chipotle-Grilled Shrimp Enchiladas ($19.95) team sweet corn jalapeno crepes; a corn, black bean and jicama lime slaw; and pico de gallo. Potato-Wrapped Grouper ($26.95) takes on a French twist with a leek fondue and a cabernet reduction. Eastern flavor can be found in the tuna tartare appetizer ($10.95), served with pickled cucumbers, wasabi vinaigrette and house-made sesame crackers.

Ambrose says a core menu makes up 80 percent of Devon's offerings, while the other 20 percent reflects decisions by the general managers and chefs at each unit.

Such autonomy conveys an image of independence for the chain restaurants and also allows staff to tailor a portion of the menu to meet the tastes of their given markets—an important factor as more units are added to the chain.

Ambrose says Houlihan's has taken other small steps to distance Devon Seafood Grill from the core brand, such as borrowing marketing techniques from the independents. "The general manager's and chef's names are on each menu, so guests see it as a one-of-a-kind concept," he explains. In the age of the Internet, such distinctions can be important. Google "Devon Seafood
Grill," and you'll find bloggers who dismiss the concept for being "part of Houlihan's" before they've even visited the restaurant. The creativity factor also works as an incentive for back-of-thehouse staff. Chefs are allowed to invent their own specials only after they've proven they can expertly execute the core menu.

For now, Devon plans to expand at the deliberate rate of two restaurants per year. By contrast, the company will have opened 6-8 corporate (and 10-12 franchised) Houlihan's locations. Despite its smaller numbers, per-unit revenues higher than those of the flagship mean that Devon Seafood Grills will bring in 20-25 percent of the company's sales. Devon will open a unit in downtown Kansas City in 2007, and the company is also looking at sites in Dallas and Denver, as well as second sites in Chicago, Philadelphia and Atlanta. Anticipating success in Milwaukee, smaller markets are also part of the plan, including Columbus, Cincinnati and San Antonio. By 2012, Devon is on track to have 20-25 units open.

As to specific locations, both downtown sites and lifestyle centers in the suburbs are possibilities, says Ambrose. Not surprisingly, demographics are key: a high density of incomes upwards of $75,000, nearby high-end retail and access to businesses and business travelers. Ambrose adds that the company has fielded a number of inquiries from developers.

Calling the Shots
While Ambrose, with input from Hartnett and Admire, steers the brand, two regional managers assist him in overseeing unit operations. Each unit is led by a general manager and a chef, assisted by a small group of managers and sous chefs. Top posts in each unit are usually filled from within the brand, which boasts management turnover rates of just 20 percent. Like most restaurant companies, finding the right leaders is both crucial and challenging. Ambrose says he looks for leaders who "can develop and coach (other) managers to lead and develop teams of players that can execute our brand; leaders that focus on the guest experience and can execute our standards for service and recipes."

On the culinary side, he says, creativity comes second to consistent execution. The problem with most talented chefs, he adds, is that they want to create and put their own mark on the menu and overhaul it as they see fit—a mentality that might work for an independent, but is usually at odds with chain culture. "I look for someone with a good understanding of food and flavor profiles and a good understanding of how to manage people. We've hired some (chefs) that have come from independent operations and have had the freedom to do what they want. Some people find it (the chain structure) tedious, but we believe our core menu and recipes are so good ...why change them?"

Upscale seafood emphasizing freshness and contemporary, ethnic preparation techniques. After-work and late-night business is facilitated by large bar and lounge spaces. LEADERSHIP: Lou Ambrose, vice president of operations; Robert Harnett, Houlihan's CEO; Dan Admire, culinary vice president. LOCATIONS: Philadelphia, Chicago and Milwaukee. EXPANSION PLANS: Kansas City will open in 2007; the chain will have 20-25 units by 2012. Sites are in high-traffic downtown locations as well as upscale suburban lifestyle centers. AVERAGE CHECK: $17 at lunch, $40 at dinner. AVERAGE UNIT SALES: $5.5 million.

Toque of the Town: Houlihan's Coming of Age

Dan Admire revamps each of Houlihan’s 65 menu items with a grown-up customer in mind.
By Lisa Bertagnoli, Contributing Editor -- Chain Leader, 7/1/2005

Over the past year, Houlihan’s customers might have noticed something different about the fried calamari, one of the chain’s signature appetizers.

Instead of presented as a pile of rings on a plain white plate, the calamari comes to the table in a Chinese takeout container placed on a small rectangular plate. Two sauces, a fiery Asian barbecue and gentler ginger concoction, accompany the appetizer. “It’s a dish you see everywhere, but when you get this, it’s a real surprise,” says Dan Admire, vice president of culinary for Kansas City, Mo.-based Houlihan’s, which has 26 corporate and 48 franchised restaurants in the United States.

If they look hard enough, customers will find something different about every one of the 65 items on the chain’s new menu, rolled out last year. “Everything, in one way or another, got touched,” Admire says.

“Touched” means a tweak as simple as a new plate or as complicated as an entirely new recipe. For instance, ‘Shrooms, a $7.99 appetizer of stuffed jumbo mushroom caps coated with Japanese bread crumbs, is the same recipe, only presented on a 12-inch-by-4-inch white plate. Three new plates—a high-rimmed triangular plate, a small rectangular plate and a bigger rectangle—are key to the new menu’s contemporary feel, Admire says.

Nineteen of the 65 items on the menu are brand new. Admire eliminated mainstays such as cheese fries and a Caribbean-flavored chicken entree in favor of Goat Cheese Bruschetta, $6.99; Chipotle-Smoked Chicken Enchiladas, $10.99, spiked with green chiles, tomatillos and smoked-chipotle cheese sauce instead of the classic red sauce; and Ahi Tuna Salad, $10.99, cilantro-spiked napa cabbage topped with cashews, fresh bananas, banana chips, seared rare tuna, sesame seeds and won-ton strips. The salad’s ginger dressing is made from the juice extracted from ginger pureed in a bar blender.
“Our target was to make craveable food,” Admire says of the unusual approaches to menu staples. “Craveable food creates dining decisions.”

Adult Entertainment
Houlihan’s launched its menu project three years ago as part of an entire process that Admire calls “a pretty serious brand evolution.” “We needed an update,” says Admire, a six-year Houlihan’s veteran who trained with Chef Larry Bowen of Gilbert-Robinson’s Fedora concept and under Chef Robert Palmagrine, who brought the teachings of legendary chef Jean-Jacques Rachou of La Côte Basque to The Winds Restaurant in Kansas City.

The chain has a specific target in mind for this evolution: Gen Xers and baby boomers for whom Houlihan’s isn’t exactly top of mind, says Creative Director Jen Gulvik. “The company has been around for 30 years,” she says. “A lot of people have used it in the past but are lapsed users.”
Courting adults also offers Houlihan’s a competitive angle: “It differentiates us from casual-dining restaurants, which are more family-focused,” Gulvik says.

Overall, the new menu strives to provide contemporary foods with intense flavors, more ethnic offerings and with-a-twist versions of popular American foods, according to Admire. Within those parameters, several key elements address the adult market.

The drink-friendly appetizer menu was the subject of most menu tinkering. Houlihan’s added six appetizers to the menu, bringing the total to 16. Appetizer flavors span the globe, from Italy to Thailand to Mexico, and include several lighter dishes such as Asian Lettuce Wraps, $7.29. Customers are responding well to the change: Appetizer sales increased 15 percent the first six weeks after the new menu rolled out.

Another adult-oriented element is the bar menu, formerly separated from but now part of the main menu. Adding four pages of beer, wine and specialty drinks, among them mini-martinis, mojitos and top-shelf margaritas, to the main menu has resulted in a 1.23 percent jump in alcohol sales.

Houlihan’s new menu of small-portion desserts, each priced at $1.99, attract an increasingly waist-conscious adult audience as well. “When we had big desserts, they were a tough sell,” says Gulvik, noting that three adults would usually share a $4.95 dessert.

The smaller portions, she says, “are a great way to give people dessert without the baggage.” Again, customers seem to agree. Even though the company slashed dessert prices and portions by 40 percent, the new menu of mini-desserts has added 3 cents to the check average.

The adult-skewed approach might work for Houlihan’s, but Wally Butkus, principal at Restaurant Research LLC in Redding, Conn., disagrees that it’s a point of differentiation for the chain. “I don’t think what they’re doing to appeal to adult customers is different than what other casual chains are doing,” Butkus says, citing adult-oriented menu promotions by T.G.I. Friday’s, Ruby Tuesday and Chili’s.

However, Butkus praises Houlihan’s Nooner menu. Named after a rather racy adult pastime and designed to drive lunch sales, it offers a limited number of salads, sandwiches and entrees with the guarantee that food will be served in 15 minutes from the time the server takes the order to the time the food is delivered to the table. “We wanted to address the misperception that you can’t get in and out [of a casual restaurant] quickly at lunch,” Gulvik says. Advertised at the store and even on its own Web site (, the Nooner Menu has boosted lunch sales 8.2 percent since Houlihan’s rolled it out two years ago.

Testing, Testing

The transformation of the main menu required a 16-month R&D process and multiple test phases, Admire says. The company first assembled a menu team, which included CEO Bob Hartnett, Senior Vice President of Operations Dan Clay, Vice President of Purchasing Murray Meikenhous and Culinary Manager Michael Pallante, to brainstorm ideas. Admire says the committee comprised different tastes and opinions. “We didn’t need everyone agreeing,” he says.

Ideas the committee deemed worthy went through the R&D process and ultimately ended up in the test kitchen. Houlihan’s franchise advisory board and its team of area directors evaluated each new item. “We did 20 separate food reviews,” Admire says.

After a refining process, the menu team assembled the final menu, which was tested in a Leewood, Kan., Houlihan’s. After expanding to another market, the menu returned to headquarters for one last refinement and rolled out in four stages: appetizers first, then sandwiches and salads, then entrees, and, finally, desserts.

The four-stage approach enabled the restaurants’ staffs to gain sure footing with a small part of the menu at a time; releasing an entirely new menu all at once might have proved operationally disastrous, Admire says. Houlihan’s introduced a new physical menu, with new graphics and groupings (burgers, for example, are listed as a single item, with options underneath), at the very end of the process.

While some dishes sailed through testing, others took more time. Fish Tacos, for instance, “went round and round,” Admire says. Decisions abounded: Grilled or fried fish? What kind of fish, and what sort of condiment? Napa cabbage or shredded lettuce? Lime, chipotle or no dressing at all? And what about the side dish?

The final product is a flour tortilla filled with breaded tilapia, topped with napa cabbage, dressed with honey-cumin sauce, and served with pico de gallo, sour cream, chips and salsa for $7.99. Despite the R&D angst, Admire is happy with the results: “I ate every fish taco in the land, and we have the best one in the world.”

A few items that pleased testers proved to be operationally unwieldy. A tuna niçoise salad, for instance, required five single-use products and five separate prep recipes including lemon-yogurt dressing, house-made basil oil and braised balsamic red onions. “It had too many moving parts,” Admire says of the salad.
Flavor First
Admire is currently fine-tuning the menu including a wholesale evaluation of ingredients. “We’re taking a look at upgrading our chicken and bacon, looking at our bread program, adding new soups of the day and vegetable selections, plus a little dessert development,” he says.

With ingredient upgrading and future menu items, Houlihan’s will worry first about making customers happy, then deal with operational issues.

“We’re not in the microwave business,” says Gulvik, noting that 95 percent of the menu is made from scratch. “Flavor comes first, then we figure out how to make it operationally feasible.”