Trend Feast

Create the Perfect Secret Menu Item in 6 Smart Steps

Apr 01, 2024

Create the Perfect Secret Menu Item in 6 Smart Steps

Even the savviest consumer gets a little giddy after discovering a secret menu item. It feels like you’ve joined an exclusive club—without the expensive membership fees. It’s an even better feeling for the restaurateur, chef and establishment’s staff if that secret menu item goes viral on social media.

The real secret is executing that secret menu item without the appearance of trying too hard. According to Datassential, 60% of consumers say they would go out of their way to try a restaurant’s secret menu item, and nearly one in four consumers say they've ordered from a secret menu.1

At Howlin’ Ray’s, a trendy hot-chicken-focused eatery in Pasadena, California, customers line up for as long as four hours to order from the menu. The secret menu was born out of crew members enthusiastically creating new dishes for their family meals.

The most popular items were fully developed for a secret menu, which includes Mario Fries (fries covered in signature comeback sauce as well as cheddar, vinegar slaw, pickles and chunks of hot chicken) and Matt Fries (a poutine-style invention topped with collard greens, cut-up bacon, comeback sauce, braised tomatoes and potlikker sauce).2

“It used to be [served] family style at the end of the shift, then it just caught on like wildfire,” says Howlin’ Ray’s crew member Matt Jacobsen about his Matt Fries secret menu item. “I actually just thought I was putting spinach on top of everything. I had no idea collard greens would cause such a fuss.” It’s caused quite a fuss all right.

There’s a formula to create the perfect secret menu item. Most important, it shouldn’t cost an operator more money to make and it most certainly should not put stress on the staff. Here are six smart steps to consider.

1. Put a new spin on a classic dish for the secret menu item

Whether you’re a QSR or casual-dining establishment, it’s important to remember that your guests are coming for familiar fare. If your brand doesn’t specialize in falafels, fried quail nuggets or empanadas, then don’t use a secret menu to suddenly offer them.

Instead, utilize it to put creative spins on existing dishes. According to new research by Datassential, Chicken & Waffles have grown 19.7% on menus in the past four years.3 With so many classic American restaurants offering fried chicken on their menus, adding a fluffy, made-to-order waffle isn’t a big stretch.

Even Disney World has jumped on the trend. One of its most popular attractions beyond the rides is at Grand Floridian Café where customers may order their version of chicken and waffles. Here, it arrives with buttermilk-fried chicken breasts, a malted waffle with an imprint of Mickey Mouse’s likeness and Sriracha-Honey Drizzle.

Also steadily gaining popularity are Elote Loaded Fries, with growth of 90.1% on menus in the past four years, according to the research.3 At Hot Mess Burger and Fries, in Kennewick, Washington, the off-menu item is called Elote Hot Fries—and taken up a notch. The usual grilled corn, cotija cheese and tajin is topped with a house-made fire sauce.

2. Use existing pantry items

It really is that simple. Plus, if the new secret item doesn’t go over well with customers, you can go back to the drawing board without racking up losses. According to Datassential, cost and pricing of new items is the top consideration for operators when developing a new menu item.1 Utilizing existing pantry items—plus adding one more Simplot item—would add minimal cost and cooking time.

For example, feature an Onion Lover's Burger on the secret menu. Onion Jam has grown 63.3% on sandwich menus in the past four years. Plus, among consumers who have tried caramelized onion, 84% of consumers love or like it.3 It would be a surefire hit.

There would likely be a similar response to the addition of Cheesy Guacamole Fries to a secret menu. Guacamole has grown 8.6% on fries in the past four years, and 79% of consumers love/like guacamole among those who have tried it.3 That certainly sounds like a win.

3. Get the entire team involved

Howlin’ Ray’s crew members were encouraged to develop dishes for each other to enjoy during family meal. That sense of camaraderie helped boost the team’s morale, plus it became a contest to see who could get their dish added to the secret menu.

It’s important for managers, chefs, operators and others in charge to make every team member feel like they’re contributing to the success of the restaurant. Lean on your team for creativity because you never know what will become your next big hit.

4. Collaborate with a popular local restaurant for the secret menu item

Another idea along the same line is to team up with a popular local restaurant or bar for a new concept for the secret menu. You’ll get fresh ideas, split the profits, and cross-promote on social media platforms. There’s also an opportunity for an entirely new audience, which is always great.

5. Promote secret menu item(s) to social media influencers

According to Datassential, 19% of Gen Z consumers have purchased a menu item/food product because a celebrity or influencer was associated with it.1 Take that stat into account and run with it.

There are a couple of ways to approach this tactic:

  • Collab with celebrity, media personality and/or social media influencers: Work with them to come up with the ideal secret menu item—based on what’s already in your pantry of course—and name it after that person for an LTO. Promise a portion of the proceeds to their favorite charity organization.

  • Invite celebrities, media personalities and social media influencers for an exclusive VIP tasting of secret menu item: Make them feel special by making a big deal about it, offering complimentary beverages and additional dishes. Introduce the secret menu item as the big finale to the meal. Create a hashtag and ask them to post it to their social media accounts. Make it go viral!

6. Consider an LTO loyalty program

36% of Gen Z consumers have purchased or tried to purchase a special edition, limited-time product from a food brand. It’s also important to note that 54% of consumers are interested in access to special menu items as part of a limited-service restaurant loyalty program.1

At Howlin’ Ray’s, customers—many of them Gen Zers—were encouraged to post their favorite secret menu items to the restaurant’s Instagram account for an opportunity to get that dish free for an entire year. That was indeed motivation for consumers and helped increase visibility for the establishment. According to the restaurant’s account, all customers who participated in the contest were entered into an LTO Loyalty Program so that they would know about upcoming specials.

Turn your secret menu item into a moment to remember with these recipes from the Simplot Culinary Team:

Cheesy Guacamole Fries
Cheeseburger fries? Nachos? Delicious! Enjoy crispy fries topped with nacho cheese, seasoned ground beef, caramelized onions, Harvest Fresh® Dill Pickle Flavored Avocado Spread, tomatoes and a drizzle of fry sauce.
View Recipe »

The Onion Lover’s Burger
In this case, the name really does say it all. Load up a classic burger with perfectly seasoned caramelized onions, house-made garlic aioli, and Swiss cheese then serve it up with lettuce and tomato.
View Recipe »

Munchies Chicken & Waffles To Go
Spicy fried chicken bites and crispy bacon sandwiched between our new Maple City™ Waffle Flavored Waffle Fries, finished with a drizzle of hot honey. Mmmm.
View Recipe »

Elote Loaded Fries
Pile up a plate of crispy fries and top with RoastWorks® Flame-Roasted Simply Sweet Corn in a tangy, spicy sauce and a big dollop of guacamole. Finish them off with cotija and cilantro and watch them disappear.
View Recipe »

1 Datassential, ReportPro, 2024
2 Here’s Every Secret Menu Item to Order at Howlin’ Ray’s
3 Datassential, MenuTrends, 2024