Innovations: Employee Contest Springs An LTO 

by Patricia Cobe, Senior Editor | Restaurant Business Magazine

southwest chicken stack

To revamp its menu, Native Grill & Wings took to social media for guest input. Appetizers, salads and, of course, wings already were robust categories at the casual-dining chain. What the crowdsourcing revealed was demand for more sandwiches and burgers. To jumpstart the R&D process, Native Grill tapped another crowd—staff at the chain’s 29 units— to launch ‘Final Cut: Native,’ a competition to shape its first sandwich LTO in a few years.

1. Local intelligence

“We thought that the employees would have fresh ideas about using our signature ingredients,” says Kelly Fulcher, marketing coordinator for Native Grill. “They know what guests like because of their daily interactions with them.” The six finalists—including the winning chicken sandwich created by Robert Wisnecki, a fry cook from the chain’s Missoula, Mont., location—tapped into menu trends from Native’s four operating areas.

2. Raiding the pantry

The charge: Create a sandwich using just the ingredients and products already in Native Grill’s inventory. Wisnecki was inspired to build the winning chicken sandwich with Jack cheese, ancho-lime seasoning, Anaheim chilies and a signature honey-chipotle sauce he found in the restaurant’s pantry and walk-in. “That rule didn’t limit my creativity; it challenged it,” Wisnecki says.

3. Judges with benefits

Wisnecki and the other finalists were invited to headquarters for a cookoff, where a panel of local food bloggers did the judging. “We decided on blogger judges to help build buzz,” says Fulcher. “We encouraged them to post live on social media as they tasted each entry.” Later, the bloggers followed up with more posts after Wisnecki’s Southwest Chicken Stack Sandwich was declared the crowd favorite and winner.

What’s next

The chicken sandwich is an LTO featured on Native Grill’s August menu insert. The brand is marketing the item throughout the month on its social media sites and is reminding the blogger judges to do the same on their feeds. Native Grill & Wings plans to run more employee contests to hatch menu ideas, says Fulcher. “We are increasingly taking regional tastes into consideration as the chain expands into more states,” she says.