Pittsburgh serves as test market for Arby's new menu items


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The name of the new menu that Arby's is testing in Pittsburgh pretty much sums up the chain's marketing message: Snack 'n Save.

Customers have been drawn to dollar menus, value menus and anything else that sounded like a deal in recent recessionary years. But the offers have been getting kind of stale, with deal-driven traffic down 3 percent last year, according to market research firm NPD Group.

Meanwhile, consumers have been getting the message from nutritionists that they should eat smaller meals, maybe have a few snacks rather than one big meal. And that has driven an increase in grazing that quick-serve chains have taken note of.

"Snacking has become a pretty big trend in the industry," said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based food consulting group.

Arby's began testing the replacement for its value menu in a limited way last fall, said Karen Anderson, senior vice president of business intelligence and consumer insights for the Atlanta chain. After a bit of tinkering, the test was expanded at the beginning of April to more than 200 restaurants in several different markets, including Pittsburgh.

In addition to looking at things like market penetration, Ms. Anderson said the chain's team felt that the Pittsburgh customer base seems to be sensitive to promotions, making it a good fit for the test.

Under the redesigned menu, Arby's groups 15 items that can be had for prices ranging from $1 to $2.99. Customers can get a Junior Roast Beef sandwich for $1 or a Chocolate Molten Lava Cake for $1.99. The Mighty Minis, two small sandwiches with either roast beef or turkey for $2.69, are being described as a type of slider.

"What that does is it offers consumer choices," Ms. Anderson said.

Arby's, founded in nearby Boardman, Ohio, in 1964 and known for its roast beef sandwiches, has been trying to change the perception that it doesn't give diners options, even though it has added items such as turkey and chicken sandwiches and sells salads.

The snack menu change puts Arby's in the middle of similar work being done by its peers, Mr. Tristano said. Restaurants need to get away from names such as "dollar menu" as commodity prices rise. "Rising costs have made it somewhat of a loss leader," he said.

If restaurants can offer a wider selection of products and present them as a value, that might interest more diners. In addition, offering smaller items that can be used for snacking opens up the opportunity to pick up business beyond the traditional mealtimes, Mr. Tristano said.

Companies also are responding to the competition, he said, citing the example of Burger King adding smoothies because McDonald's had them and trying turkey burgers after Hardee's did.

Even if deal-driven traffic slipped last year, NPD Group doesn't recommend restaurants stop trying to attract consumers with special offers. "Considering current consumer sentiment and their continuing frugality, the deals that have historically appealed to restaurant customers need to be re-engineered and the next generation of deals introduced," said Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst, in a March release discussing the NPD report results.

In January, Wendy's revamped its value menu, putting 18 items ranging in price from 99 cents to $1.99 under the Right Price Right Size menu. "Value is what you get, not just what you pay," said Craig Bahner, the Dublin, Ohio-based restaurant chain's chief marketing officer, in the announcement of the program.

Wendy's and Arby's had the same ownership until 2011, when Arby's was acquired by a private equity investment group.

The new Snack 'n Save menu will be marketed in Pittsburgh through April. Then the advertising push will stop, although the menu will still be offered, Ms. Anderson said. A decision will be made later as to whether to roll out the menu companywide.

Ms. Anderson didn't release any results but said the company is watching the data closely and is happy so far. "We think we're moving the needle a bit."

food - mobilehome - businessnews

Teresa F. Lindeman: tlindeman@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-2018.


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