If this sounds like intricate culinary language for a $4 limited-time product, it’s partially because the item was the brainchild of one of Popeyes’ ideation sessions, where delegations from the company’s culinary team, its network of food suppliers, and its marketing department descend upon an American city for a boozy, decadent work retreat. In January, I met the team in New Orleans, where, split into groups, attendees scoured the city for inspiration, visiting newer, trendy sit-down restaurants like Willa Jean and Compère Lapin, dodging insurance-adjustment conventioneers at Big Easy standbys like Antoine’s, Brennan’s, and Napoleon House, as well as sampling remoulade at Arnaud’s, muffulettas at Central Grocery, beignets at Cafe Du Monde, and Sazeracs, French 75s, grasshoppers, and brandy punches along the way.
Following this “research,” the group gathered at the tourist attraction Mardi Gras World and spent two days hashing out hundred of ideas for an LTO that wouldn’t debut for at least another year, using logistical considerations from suppliers to narrow and refine the list for items that could potentially scale across 2,000 locations. “We work on the same timeline that you think of in retail,” Alarcón said. “Things you buy at the grocery store, those are still 12-to-18-month timelines.” During that time, the product goes through consumer research and internal operations testing, which Alarcón characterizes as an attempt to “try to stress it and try to break it, so we can be very informed and course-corrected before we ever decide to put it out in front of franchisees.” She added that that extra time is also devoted to ordering products and procuring special ingredients that could require a six-month lead time.
But while an LTO has to be unique, it also has to cohere, not only as a concept, but also within a consumer’s understanding of and familiarity with a certain company. Whereas Popeyes uses New Orleans as its lens, Arby’s—historically known best for its roast beef sandwiches—distills its menu items through a decidedly “meat-centric” prism. Its most recent short-term items have included steak and brisket sandwiches topped with brown-sugar bacon and its first foray into meatball sandwiches, which it released this week.
“We’re in the temptation business with the LTOs, not the education business,” says Jim Taylor, the senior vice president of product development and innovation for Arby’s. “If people don’t really know what it is, they are not going to be attracted to it. But by the same token, if what you’re giving them is something they can get anywhere else, they’re not going to pay attention and come into the store specifically for us on an extra visit.”
If familiarity is already a central organizing principle in the quick-service world, it is especially crucial for fare that only is only briefly available. “The sweet spot for us is to think about really craveable territories to explore and finding a way to put a twist on a classic or something familiar,” Taylor adds.