Each year, team members from every corner of The Counter’s corporate team gather for an open brainstorming session to pitch and discuss new-strategy ideas for the burger brand. The annual Research and Development Workshop is the origin of many of The Counter’s most successful innovations, and this year’s workshop, held just two months ago, is already yielding promising results.
Scott Weaver is the director of research and development for The Counter. Weaver is a career chef who before arriving at Kahala Brands™ directed the culinary strategy for a number of large restaurant chains, including the Pieology® Pizzeria and Red Robin® franchises. At Kahala Brands, Weaver’s primary charge is to lead to the culinary innovation for The Counter’s menu, and he says the R&D Workshop plays a key role in those efforts.
We talked to Weaver to learn more about the R&D Workshop and how The Counter continues to stay ahead of changing consumer tastes and trends.
In a nutshell, describe your role at The Counter
Weaver: I’m a chef, so I’m primarily responsible for innovation in The Counter’s menu. My team is responsible for bringing all of our new innovations to market, whether they are salad or specialty burgers or LTO offerings or anything else.
So a big part of my job is to stay on top of what the trends are and coming up with new items that will meet those demands and positively impact sales. The word we use to describe what we’re always aiming for is “craveable.” You can make items that are good or even great, but craveable is that next level. So when we create ideas, we want to make them craveable, and sometimes that requires a little push on the operations side, so we work closely with that team.
Ultimately, the goal is to increase guest visits. Guests may come in three times a month, and we’re trying to push that to five. At the same time, we’re also trying to attract new guests who aren’t visiting The Counter at all for whatever reason—maybe they just haven’t realized that it has great options for them.
What is the Research and Development Workshop?
Weaver: It’s a big brainstorming session. It’s a day when we get everyone in the same room—people from the operations team, marketing, senior executives and of course, culinarians like myself—and we are all asked to bring ideas that we think would help take The Counter to the next level.
We have a giant whiteboard, and everyone gets a chance to write ideas on it. They could be menu ideas, like new specialty burgers, salads or apps, or it could be directional, like improving our brand’s beverage program or changing our service sequence. So it’s everyone from food to operations to customer service.
Once we have all the ideas on the board, we’ll go through a shakeout. Everyone is given ten green dots, and we vote on our ten favorite ideas, and we start culling the herd a bit. We might do that sequence a couple of times until we are down to our three or five favorite ideas to focus on. We leave the meeting with real, actionable ideas to work on. It’s probably where the lion’s share of our innovation efforts come from.
What is a recent menu innovation that The Counter has rolled out?
Weaver: Last year we introduced the Impossible Burger™. The Impossible Burger has been one of our biggest successes. It’s made us a go-to destination for an even bigger customer base, and it’s really increased sales and traffic. That’s probably the best example of how our collaborative process produces amazing results.
How did you prepare for this week’s workshop?
Weaver: I prepared a lot. Everyone does. Each of us is looking at different areas. It might be data analysis or things we’ve noticed at other restaurants. I subscribe to a number of trade magazines and follow a number of other restaurants on social media.
What are some of the ideas that came out of this year’s workshop?
Weaver: We are always working on burgers, and we decided on about five new burger concepts that we are working on, but the biggest thing that came out of the workshop was the decision to focus on balance. Lunch is an enormous opportunity for sales, and that’s where people are looking for something lighter. So we’re working on lighter, healthier options that are every bit as craveable as our burgers. In particular, we are developing around eight new salads.
The new salads are being designed to feel like a lighter meal. We are looking for bright flavors. People don’t want heavy salads, and that usually comes from the dressing, so we are looking for bright, citrus-based dressings that are lower in calories.
That focus on salads also feeds into one of our brand’s big operational concerns, which is speed of service. Speed is crucial at lunchtime, and you don’t want to be known as the restaurant that takes a long time to get lunch. So we’re designing our salads to be quickly assembled while remaining just as high-quality as everything else on our menu