Tips on Making Menu Pitches to Big-Time Restaurant Chains

Children ordering food at a burger fast food restaurant

The allure of having just one menu item containing a manufacturer’s product in a top 50 restaurant chain is irresistible. If successful, you can have a dramatic impact on sales and open the door to additional sales for years ahead. Getting it done requires a bit of magic and a systematic process designed to win. Here is some advice.

In large part, making a chain pitch is about relationships. That’s why the most valuable part of a national accounts manager’s expertise is in his or her contacts built over the years of a career.

It’s essential that the person in charge of national accounts consistently attend events to engage with chain menu developers, renewing old friendships and building new ones. You should require that the person in charge of national accounts provide a weekly report on their sales call activity to assure that they stay on task.

These trusted relationships win the opportunity to pitch to the chain’s top menu developer and his or her team. Ask them about their challenges, their chief competitors, and the target demos they hope to attract with a new menu item.

Set the date for the pitch and communicate regularly with the chain representative on nuances to their operation, shifts in their priorities, and who else will likely be in the room when the pitch is made. Once the appointment is set, gather your best team members to develop the pitch. Ideally, this team will gather frequently for a variety of chain pitches, growing in expertise and comfort in working with other members in the process.

Here’s an important tip. Gain permission to have a member of your culinary team visit one of the target chain’s kitchens to observe their food preparations. Staff within that kitchen need quick and easy preparation, so never develop a recipe that calls for adding too many steps, ingredients, or new equipment to prepare your menu item(s).

If possible, use the chain’s specific ingredients—for example, chicken or beef patties or bacon—so that your proposed new menu item selected for a tasting is as accurate to its possible usage as possible. This limits potential objections from chain developers who might say, “Well, that’s not our bacon. It would taste different with our bacon.”

In developing the new items, look for gaps that exist within a target chain’s menu compared to its competition. Database tools, such as Datassential, can do that in seconds. Positive menu trends that can be leveraged in your pitch can also be identified through the database. Determining the proper fit of a manufacturer’s product into a menu item that fills the gap and additional use of the product in other menu items is key. It might be a flavored chicken patty that can be part of a sandwich and can also be sliced and used atop a salad.

Assistance from an in-house or contracted culinary professional is key to developing a winning pitch. Work toward the development of items you believe can be added to the regular menu (for ongoing product orders), and not just a limited time offer.

Consider using consumer panels to test your menu concepts. In preparation for a recent pitch, we tested eight concepts, sharing the proposed names of the items and menu description with an online consumer panel to develop a scoring system of the likely appeal of the new item with varying demographics and genders.

This data given during the presentation can be of considerable advantage in convincing the target chain that you’ve done your homework in presenting a winning menu item. Find out how long you will have for your presentation on the big day, and assemble it accordingly. A minimum of one hour should be allotted, or better yet, 90 minutes.

You’ll want to prepare a brief presentation deck that shares your brand’s story. Include a bit about your company’s heritage, manufacturing capabilities, and commitment to sustainability and clean labels. This part of your presentation should not consume more than 5-10 minutes, depending upon your allotted time. Then, include specifics on your consumer testing so that this information can be shared while your target chain’s staff tastes your proposed menu items.

Practice your presentation with your pitch team at least a couple of times so that everyone knows their part and the best presenters spend the most time talking. But remember—the purpose of the presentation is to convince the chain to add your menu items, not to get through a PowerPoint.

Secure space within the chain’s innovation center to prepare your candidate menu items. Have pitch team members watch your culinary team assemble the samples. Know the ingredients. Know everything about the menu items you are getting ready to present. Make sure the food is ready and at the proper temperature when presented directly from the kitchen to the presentation room.

Arrange the presentation room to display your products beautifully before the time of the presentation. Arrange the tables and chairs in the room in a “U” shape to promote interaction of the chain’s team members during tastings.

Once assembled, break the ice with some quick, friendly banter and ask the participants a little about their responsibilities. One person may be responsible for appetizers and another responsible for entrees or desserts so that you can measure body language and your questions will be relevant, with the right person providing input on menu approval. Make sure to make eye contact with all members of the review, not just the boss. Ideally, your questions will lead members to affirmatives about the appropriateness of your items to their menu. Listen intently and reformulate responses to overcome objections.

Throw in at least one or two ideas beyond the menu items you present, just in case your ideas spark additional opportunities. Ask your key decision maker for his or her assessment of the items presented and next steps in the route to approval.

Your team leader should be the one person following up through the approval process and launch of the product. That person will also be responsible for alignment with distributors and your production team on ensuring flawless and timely deliveries of products that you have sold with your victory.

Here is the final tip. After the tastings and their review, invite attendees to come up to review your displayed product samples. Assign your team to engage in individual discussions to build a closer relationship and exchange business cards. Remember, many of the underlings will eventually become the heads of menu development at other chains, where your relationships can be of even more value.

You may spend years in earning an hour in front of a chain’s menu development team. It will test your commitment to earning chain business and your resources, because this process isn’t cheap. But the sales volume opportunity makes it worth the effort.