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How to Create a Signature Item

How to Create a Signature Item

Experiment with food trends that your competitors aren’t embracing in order to create a signature dish that sets your restaurant apart. (Photo: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock)

Create an iconic dish and you’ll not only cash in but help cement your brand identity.

When people hear “Bloomin’ Onion” or “Chicken Lettuce Wraps,” many automatically think of Outback Steakhouse and P.F. Chang’s, respectively. That’s because the restaurants have made these dishes their signature menu items — the ones first-time customers come in for especially and the ones repeat customers order again and again. These are the items that restaurants stand behind and devote their marketing dollars to.

But defining dishes aren’t just for chain restaurants. Small businesses can increase revenue and raise brand awareness by creating and promoting their own signature item.

Here are some tips for creating a signature dish from RealFood project specialist, Anthony Ferrari:

Consider how you want guests to experience your brand

Many small business restaurant clients fall into the branding trap of trying to please everyone and do everything. Not enough restaurants have conversations about who they are aiming to serve and what their restaurant’s identity is.

But when you start brainstorming what your signature item could be, you’re forced to have these conversations. If you don’t, your iconic dish won’t end up being so iconic.

Do you want to create something fun or something full of flavor that flaunts the seriousness of your cooking? Do you want your dish to showcase your hard work or be an interactive and affordable thrill? These are questions to ask yourself. Try to get in the customer’s shoes and what you want them to experience when they have this item. Think of how you want the customer to experience your brand.

Brainstorm can’t-get-anywhere-else ideas

One way to go about choosing a signature item is to start brainstorming unique recipes. It should be something that is craveable but that you can’t necessarily get anywhere else.

Perhaps look at food and cocktail trends that your competitors aren’t embracing, like poke or over-the-top milkshakes. But again, keep in mind your brand. If you’re a sushi restaurant, you don’t need a milkshake on the menu. But if you’re a steakhouse, it could be a whimsical addition.

Look to your bestsellers for inspiration

One of your bestsellers could turn into your signature item if promoted properly. Every restaurant knows what sells the most or what people love the most.

An Italian restaurant could promote its red sauce as being better than grandma’s, or a steakhouse could turn a steak into a signature item by promoting the special way in which it’s prepared.

Try a seasonal speciality

An alternative to a signature dish: Create something seasonal and limited, like a cocktail with rhubarb and strawberries in the summer.

Then your customers say, "gotta get to X restaurant because it’s strawberry season.” Seasonality is a good thing to look at, because if one dish doesn’t work one season, the next season you pick your brain.

Try hosting a kickoff event that puts your signature dish in the spotlight. (Photo: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock)

Turn a dish, like steak, into a signature item by promoting it’s unique preparation process. (Photo: Dima Sobko/Shutterstock)

Get the word out

Any exciting new change to the menu or business has to be communicated to potential customers.

Start by listing your signature dish on the menu with some explainer text about why it’s special. Perhaps single the item out in a box or with an icon. In doing so, you’re saying to guests that you stand by this dish and that it’s the best representation of your restaurant’s experience.

But don’t stop there. Ferrari said your wait staff needs to be on board and trained to promote this dish. Write scripts for how you want servers to talk about the dish, or explain the main selling points. Communicate that every table the frontline touches, they talk about the signature item.

Whether you’re a new restaurant or an older one, you might also benefit from hosting a kickoff event or tasting when you launch the new item. This gets people talking about the dish and refreshes customers’ memories about your restaurant.

Your signature dish is, of course, a marketing tool for your restaurant. It’s an opportunity to make people interested in your restaurant or re-interest them. Pay attention to your POS system’s data to see how hot it is with your customers, and take their feedback seriously.

Your signature dish is just that — your restaurant’s signature. Make it craveable, make it memorable and make it on brand, and chances are guests will gobble it up.