How National Brands Localize Their Menus

By Ross Perkins, Foodable Contributor

“Local” is something consumers desire and what some national chains are actually delivering. That’s right: National chains used to be known for their single menu across the board so when a consumer went to a restaurant in Des Moines, it would have the same offerings as his usual spot in Indianapolis. But that’s changing ever so slightly. Some national brands are tweaking their menus to give consumers a little taste of the local. And probably more brands will get on board as consumers continue to crave the unique and the local.

National Brands Make You Feel At Home

One example of a national brand that is making diners remember where they are is Smashburger. The Denver-based burger chain has more than 200 stores across the country, and while most of the menu is the same from location to location, the chain carries a signature burger based on the location. In Washington, DC, Smashburger has the Capital, which has grilled onions, aged Swiss, baby arugula, and applewood-smoked bacon on a brioche bun. In Austin, Texas, this same chain created the Texas burger, which is a basic American cheese, yellow mustard, lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickles served on an egg bun.

Smashburger stores within the same state even change up their signature burgers to add some flair to the menu. In New Orleans, the NOLA comes packed with Creole mustard sauce, shredded leaf lettuce, and the all-important fried green tomato. But a few hours north in Louisiana, the Shreveport Smashburger has the Louisiana burger, which is very different from the NOLA – Cajun grilled onions and remoulade sauce make this burger unique.

The Capital Burger at Smashburger  | YELP

The Capital Burger at Smashburger | YELP

And this same trend applies to not only burgers but also to pizza. At California Pizza Kitchen, it follows a slightly similar model where offerings change a bit from location to location. And its website even gives consumers a heads up about it. What’s on the menu at one California Pizza Kitchen location may not be the same at another.

Grocery Stores Do This Too

And don’t think this trend applies to just restaurants. National grocery store chains are including sections within their stores that focus on locally made goods and brands. One of the bigger leaders in this trend is Whole Foods, which uses local buyers so the stores have unique offerings. At Washington, DC-area Whole Foods, there are plenty of local products sourced from the area’s food incubators, especially Union Kitchen. Using buyers who know their cities’ food scenes make the grocery stores feel more curated. The Whole Foods stores in Chicago will have many of the same products in Miami, but shoppers will still be able to recognize a Chicago store from one in Miami.

The Benefits Are There But Buyers Beware

This localization of national menus and offerings not only adds variety – which is the spice of life – but also ensures costs are kept in check by keeping in stock what people actually want to eat. When in Kansas City, if its possible to tweak the menu to give it a bit of a BBQ edge, then that might help with sales. When in California, Napa-style offerings are often popular. Likewise, when in the Mid-Atlantic, adding Maryland crab is a popular way to make it feel like a local restaurant.

But kowtowing to regional and local food clichés could backfire. If a chain just adds Tabasco to a product and calls it “Cajun”, the brand may appear to be at best unknowledgeable about the local food culture or at worst – lazy. And that may do more harm than good. But with the right finesse and market intelligence to modify a brand’s selections to reflect the region, brands can do it right. And consumers will often appreciate when a national brand takes the time to change up its selection – even if it is slightly – to make the local spot somewhat special. Whether or not the consumer actually buys what’s actually local, that’s a whole different story.