Limited-time menu items strain restaurant supply chains

By | 1 minute read | November 10, 2017

A limited-time menu item is an essential part of a restaurant chain’s playbook. If an experimental item fails, it disappears quietly off menus. If it succeeds, it can “boost brand excitement and even single-handedly drive sales.”

But what if it works a little too well? That’s a problem that restaurant chains are increasingly facing.

According to market research firm Technomic, the 100 biggest restaurant chains added 2,654 new or limited-time items to their menus last year, up 46 percent from 2015, in an effort to improve sales. The offers have helped raise revenue, but they’ve often presented a challenge for supply chains.

Three weeks into an eight-week Reuben sandwich promotion last fall at Subway, the chain ran out of rye bread and other Reuben ingredients as traffic outpaced expectations in some regions. This summer, the Tropical Smoothie Café chain found out last minute that its avocado supplier couldn’t fulfill its order because of issues stemming from bad weather. Tropical Smoothie’s VP of supply chain raced to find new suppliers, but could only find 85 percent of the avocados needed for its limited-time “Avocolada” smoothie.

As more restaurant chains lean on limited-time offers to boost sales, suppliers are increasingly asked to break with traditional schedules and respond to fluctuating demand. And supply chain managers in the restaurant industry are under greater pressure to make sure offers proceed without a hitch.

Limited-time menu items are an inherently tricky act for restaurant chains pull off. But with the right supply chain tools in place, chains could sweat promotions much less.

Access to AI insights based on weather data can help chains anticipate disruptions and respond to ripples in their supply chains. AI-enabled social media monitoring can help them understand the degree and location of interest in a limited-time menu item. And access to advanced analytics at the street and neighborhood level can help determine where and when demand might surge for a particular item.

With smart management, limited-time offers can be endlessly enjoyable.