TGI Fridays today (Oct. 1) launches a completely revamped burger menu at its restaurants across the U.S. The top-to-bottom reconsideration involves a shift to fresh USDA Choice beef rather than frozen Angus, freshly baked buns, new builds and the addition of a premium-priced tier of Stacked Burgers. Dan Dillon, senior director of menu development for the Carrollton, Texas-based chain, outlined the new burger platform and the reasons for its adoption.
How long has this been in development?
We’ve been working on launching better burgers for Fridays for the better part of the last two years. It has taken a very guest-focused approach to land on a program that represents our quality vision and is something our guests have responded to and approved after easily five to six different iterations of testing.
This is fresh, handcrafted burgers. We’ve started over with our burgers. We launched Black Angus burgers several years back [in 2001] and it did well for a while. But we decided that we wanted to make more of a quality statement that was about freshness. Being an American bar and grill, it was something we had to do and we had to do it right.
How is that statement made?
We’ve improved every element of the burger experience from the burger itself to the build, the bun, plating and the distribution network to bring product to the restaurants. So we’ve truly started over to change our burgers and make a quality statement.
The reason [the new burger] is so important to us is that it’s a requirement for an American bar and grill to have a great burger. We looked at our burger objectively and asked, “Is this a great burger?” We decided it was a really good burger but not one we could build a brand on.
We took a step back and decided to reclaim ownership as the American bar and grill restaurant. We sell about 42,000 burgers a day so they need to be quality, kick-ass and special. That’s why we focused on burgers as a category and why it took a long time to do it right.
Is the burger itself still Angus beef?
It’s not Angus. It’s 100% USDA Choice and it’s delivered to our restaurants fresh. A fresh burger delivers a different mouth feel; it has beefier notes. It’s higher quality and a better experience for our guests.
We increased the patty size to 7 ounces from 6 ounces. We did that not to give guests more. They weren’t asking us for more; it wasn’t about portion size. We did it because that additional ounce yields a better eating experience.
We tested a lot of different cuts and landed on a blend that our guests say gives those quality benefits. It’s that looser grind that freshness gives you that a frozen product never could deliver.
We also adjusted our fat content to deliver more flavor and to give a juicier burger.
So a slightly higher fat content?
Yes. We were at 80/20 and we adjusted it to 75/25. It’s all about flavor and delivering a juicier burger. And we now will offer guests the option of having it cooked pink or no-pink. We took a step back from doing that a couple of years ago simply for consistency sake. Now we want guests to have it cooked the way they want.
You’re revamping the build as well?
Yes. We’ve gone to a new bun that is freshly baked. We have set a network of local bakeries that will deliver fresh buns to about 80% of our nearly 600 restaurants. A new buttery, brioche style bun will be delivered to them. It’s a buttery bun because fat equals flavor. And for the 20% where we couldn’t get that network in place we are doing a par-baked bun that we bake off fresh every shift. So you rebloom the aromas.
As for the build itself, we’ve always done lettuce, tomato, pickles and onion as a default. But everything was on top of the burger patty. What we’ve done is flip it so all that goes on the bottom, under the burger. And we’ve switched from leaf lettuce to iceberg lettuce to develop some crisp, fresh notes and texture.
One reason for the flip is that the burger sits up beautifully. The burger is what the guest wants; the patty itself is the hero. But there’s a functional benefit as well. When you bite into that burger, the first note you get is the buttery brioche bun, then the cheese, then the beef and then cold, fresh vegetables. It eats better because each ingredient is doing the right work at the right time in the right order.
Are you keeping your current signature burger styles?
We had the right lineup of signature burgers with our Jack Daniels Burger, New York Cheddar Burger, Spicy Craft Beer Cheese Burger as great examples of innovation. But we’re now adding a new line of Stacked Burgers. This is a premium layer within the burger category to have some news and new innovation with our fresh, handcrafted burgers.
It allows us to offer more choices and go beyond saying, “Hey, our burgers are now fresh beef with new builds” and so on. The story’s bigger because there’s true innovation in the burger category.
What are the features of the Stacked line
Each has two 3.6-ounce patties with cheesy goodness between the cheesy goodness on top. There are a lot of great handcrafted elements like onion-bacon jam that we make in-house and peppered bacon that we finish in-house. There’s slow-braised beef on our Philly burger.
In addition to the Philly Stacked Burger, we have an All-American Stacked Burger and a Blue Cheese Stacked Burger.
How much higher in price will the premium Stacked burgers be?
Within a dollar of the others [which are generally less than $10]. We’re not selling a $14 burger. It’s just one step up from our current burgers.
Were there any burger variables you didn’t reassess?
We looked at everything, including changing equipment and cooking it on a flattop grill. We tried different beef cuts and grinds, different patty sizes, different toppings, etc. This is the most guest-informed rollout for Fridays that I can recall. We looked under every rock to learn what the most compelling ways would be to change the conversation and get credited as the innovator that Fridays is.
In the end, there were no equipment changes?
No. What we learned is that our broilers with crosshatched grates were delivering quality but we need different ingredients. And we needed to refocus on execution to ensure we cook them properly each and every time.
This rollout didn’t involve just burgers. We’ve had a whole effort towards strengthening our fry skills to ensure the fries on every plate are piping hot and perfectly seasoned. Whenever a burger is put down in front of you, the first thing you do is grab a fry. We want to be sure that first impression is as strong as the last impression from the final bite.
We’ve been rolling out information about the burger program to the field over the last six months. We’ve conducted [preparation] demos here at our support center and in all our markets across the country, cascading down to training every single cook.
With onion-bacon jam and all, these new burgers seem more in line with what you see at independent burger bars than with casual-dining chains. Is that burger-bar audience one you’re looking to attract with the new burgers?
It’s hard to say who we’re trying to draw guests from. My main focus as a food innovator is to deliver a truly excellent burger to the customers we have today. If I please that guest, they’re going to come back more often because we’re delivering something that’s higher in quality and more compelling than what they can get at our look-alike competitors as well as those more-gourmet burger places.