Handle a product change with finesse
Something’s different about this slice.” Your customer just zeroed in on your change in dough, cheese or sauce. Maybe you changed because your distributor went bankrupt. Or maybe you want to switch to fresh, organic ingredients to keep up with trends, but what do you do now? Address the alteration with your loyal guests or sweep it under the rug? And when you modify an essential building block of your product, what’s the best procedure when it comes to quality control?
“The most important thing to consider is why? There has to be a reason for it,” says David Haynes, owner, general manager and culinary director of Stonedeck Pizza Pub. “Depending on the reason, it’s going to instruct you in terms of how you handle it and what you do going forward.”
If you’ve been utilizing a certain type of flour that’s become unavailable, the quality decreases, or the price goes up, find an equal or better substitute and begin adjusting the recipe. Rather focus on providing a higher-quality product with organic, fresh or non-GMO ingredients? Understand if that’s important to your customers first, then create a product that’s as close to your fan favorite as possible, if it was selling well.
“I think what people don’t realize, because it’s time-consuming, is whenever you make a change, be clear as to why, and do what it takes to do it right,” explains Karen Malody, owner of Culinary Options. “That means bringing in various brands and truly testing to see what the results are.”
With new brands and ingredients storming into your operation though, how do you manage quality control in terms of taste? Arlene Spiegel, president of Arlene Spiegel and Associates, recommends using a process map and being as scrupulous with the new product as the previous one. “It’s something to be taken seriously and needs to go through rigorous experimentation until you’re proud of the outcome. That’s when you go to market with it,” she says.
At Two Boots Pizza, owner Phil Hartman creates pies for each new location that are specific to that shop and have a local twist. Because the process is less standardized and therefore requires more diligence, he stresses staying on top of quality and consistency as well as keeping an open dialogue with local purveyors. As a pizza restaurant owner, you want to maintain the level of excellence you’ve established. If your new product’s taste or texture doesn’t match your old one, sample, evaluate and tweak until they’re equivalent in quality.
“Look at the recipe. What’s the major ingredient? Start there. Bring in some brands and taste them side-by-side to understand the different flavor profiles,” says Malody.
“You have to have a disciplined process. You can’t just pick another tomato brand and start making your sauce without knowing what it’s doing to your flavors.” Flavor profiles are also what keep your customers coming back to your establishment. If there’s a recipe that guests love, don’t tamper with it too much, as it could lead to a decrease in popularity and negative feedback.
Whether or not you focus on this change in a major component, like dough, cheese or sauce, should revolve around the comments you’re garnering from customers. If they do start to notice a change and take the time to let you know about it, there are several options going forward.
Use the opportunity to tell the story of how the ingredients show the brand’s standards, commitment to quality or support of local farmers, suggests Spiegel. Any time there’s a dramatic impact for the customer, put that change in a positive light instead of suggesting you’re fixing something that was broken. Explain that this new ingredient or idea creates a more delicious product, and their specific feedback helps your business grow. Pretending something tastes the same when it doesn’t only leads to a negative customer experience.
“Be honest with the customers. We’re never in a situation where we’re cutting corners or doing something that would be less good. We’re only doing things that will be better,” explains Hartman. “We changed to organic tomatoes for our Grandma pie, and assuming you’re always trying to make things better, tell your customers. Let them know you’re constantly trying to upgrade.”
If the product isn’t severely altered and customers are still purchasing and enjoying the pizza, Malody recommends saying nothing because, if anything, the product has a superior taste and that should always be the end goal. There’s no need to broadcast the transition while it hums along smoothly, but the staff do need to stay informed to address any customer complaints or questions.
“If it’s a core item, like a dough, sauce or cheese, I always look at things like trends or blips on the radar. If you roll out a new product, cruise along for a month without your sales changing, and only one person noticed the change, I think that’s a blip. I would think you can’t win over everybody, but we’re trending in the area of people seem to be accepting this,” says Haynes.
6 Tips for Successful Product Transition
- Find a product with a plus. It could be organic, fresh instead of frozen, or from a local farm, but this new ingredient can be used as a feature of an updated product. Bring the highlight to the customer’s attention as a positive aspect that’s creating an even more high-quality pizza.
- Change one ingredient at a time. If you alter too many items at once, you won’t know which one has the biggest positive or negative impact on flavor or texture. Start with a single fundamental ingredient, monitor the change and save yourself from changing more than you need to.
- Perform twice yearly tastings. Owners should review their products twice per year to ensure they’re still using the best option. By doing a blind sampling of at least six to eight ingredients, you can taste the differences and end up with the sample you, and your customers, love.
- Have a focus group. A mixed assemblage of valued customers and staff can secure truthful feedback. You want to know for sure that your new product is at the same quality level as your old one.
- Don’t let price sway you. Making a decision solely based on price is a recipe for disaster, as the customer can taste the cheapness difference. Also, purchasing an ingredient that’s not the specified recipe brand because there’s a sale can change the flavor of your product dramatically. Sometimes you need to spend more to win the customer over.
- Experiment and stay fresh. Understand where the trends are going to keep your product current and standing out from the crowd. Reinventing keeps your pie interesting to customers and staff, plus it gives you a chance to get creative and create a superior product.
Mandy Ellis is an Austin-based freelance writer who covers food, health and travel trends.