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Red Robin’s Exec Chef on the Art of the LTO

David Woolley joined Red Robin Gourmet Burgers as its executive chef in June 2006. He oversees culinary development for the Greenwood Village, Colo.-based chain that has more than 460 company-owned and franchised casual-dining restaurants.  Previously, Woolley directed the kitchens at The Fort restaurant in Morrison, Colo., and had been chef-owner of The Antero Grill in Salida, Colo., which featured “globally inspired cowboy and native-American fare.”

Chef David Woolley

The Red Robin menu features a dozen signature one-third-pound burgers priced from $8.99 up, and it regularly features limited-time-only burger specials. The latest LTO is the Big Melt Bacon Burger, topped with four slices of applewood-smoked bacon, Cheddar and Swiss cheeses, mushrooms and onions sautéed in barbecue sauce, lettuce and ranch dressing on an onion roll. It is due to leave the Red Robin menu this weekend, but Chef Woolley has new LTOs waiting. BurgerBusiness.com spoke with him about how burgers are developed.

Help me understand the menu R&D process for Red Robin. How are ideas generated?
We have a great menu development team that comprised of members of the food & beverage team and the marketing and purchasing teams all working together. We brainstorm all the time to come with menu ideas. And we also ideate with our vendor partners. But whatever ideas we start with, we’re going to tweak and tweak and make them Red Robin ideas.

You did a Sweet Jim Beam Bacon Swiss Burger recently [with a bourbon-glazed beef patty topped with bacon, caramelized bourbon onions and melted Swiss cheese on a garlic-butter-toasted brioche bun]. For that, did Beam Distilling come to you with the idea?
Actually, it started with us. It started with the idea of a whisky flavor, and we thought, could it be bourbon? And from there we asked how we could partner with a brand like Jim Beam. So there were a couple of steps of evolution but it began internally and moved outward.

Do you often start with a specific flavor profile in mind as the goal? Whether spicy or savory?
We don’t hold ourselves to a specific timeline. There are some items that we develop in a very short time and get them to market quickly. And there are others that take a longer time to get there, for whatever reason. Maybe we were working on a specific ingredient to get us to that next step. Or maybe we just tabled the ideabecause we didn’t like where it was and we needed to recollect our thoughts and come back to it. That’s how it happens. We have some things in the pipeline now, but we’re not following a strict timeline on when items go to market.

With the Big Melt Bacon Burger you’ve said backyard grilling inspired you. How did that click?
That really was a fun one. My wife and I love barbecuing and were grilling in the back yard and thinking about how can we could enhance the flavor of a steak. We came up with sautéing some onions and mushrooms together and adding barbecue sauce to them at the end. You get a kind of neat, umami-flavor going on with all that.

Red Robin's Big Melt Bacon Burger

And then I brought that idea back to work to play with as a burger. We had an onion bun, and then we added a bit of ranch dressing as a tweak. And then of course, we added bacon.

With those tweaks, do you work through a sort of checklist of elements in a great burger to see where you can fiddle: bun, cheese, sauce, etc.?
Absolutely. At home, I think I had the burger on a little white bun with a slice of American cheese. After playing around here, we combined both Cheddar and Swiss, which was a first for us.

You also tried a Mt. Olympus burger with feta in 2010. Was that a flavor profile you’d wanted to get on the menu?
What’s funny about that is that I’ve got a little bit of Greek heritage in me. I like the flavors of lamb and feta together. So I’d been playing around with some of those Greek flavors.  The Creamy Artichoke & Spinach Dip that’s on there, for example. There’s bacon, tomato and garlic aïoli on a ciabatta bun. All very craveable and great with the feta and meat flavors. Again, it’s something you’re not going to make at home. Oh and shredded romaine lettuce. That was on there, too, and was another different element. That was a pretty unique burger. We got great feedback on it, too.

Did you consider going with a lamb patty to complete that Greek combination? Or did you think that was a little too far ahead of your audience?
Well, when we were playing around with the ingredients and flavors, we did look at lamb. And to your point, that was exactly what we thought. We want to have flavors that are unique and different and craveable, but that also are approachable, that folks will come to the restaurants and buy.

Does it happen that the marketing contingent of the R&D team overrules an idea as being too limited in appeal?
Well, it’s a big brainstorming session, but we’re all on the same page. We all bring ideas to the table and try to figure out what will be best for our guests.

Where do you look for ideas and inspiration?

Prime Chophouse Burger

Absolutely anything and everything and everywhere. As a team, we do a lot of eating, together and separately. I read a lot, especially cookbooks. I’m a collector; I have pretty close to 1,200 cookbooks. I love looking at pretty food magazines, and there are a lot of good ideas out there. I don’t watch a ton of Food Network, but some. My background is in fine dining before I came to Red Robin and I draw on the background and some of the gourmet cooking I know.  I just live food, and burgers are among my favorite things to eat.

Are you developing menu items for the smaller-size, fast-casual Red Robin Burger Works concept as well?
Yes, we have a team that developed the menu for that. It’s very still very much Red Robin, but at the same time tweaked so there’s a little differentiation [between the two].

You need to keep a lower price-point-goal in mind with Burger Works, don’t you? And how does price factor into your thinking overall?
Well, remember that the R&D team, in addition to food & beverage has purchasing and marketing members. My contribution is creative but the other members make sure that factors such as price are considered.

Sweet Jim Beam Bacon Swiss Burger

Do those factors include nutrition? Certainly there’s a lot of scrutiny on healthy eating now. In the ideation process, do you consider calorie or fat content as you’re developing a menu idea, or do you create first and ask calorie questions later?
That’s a fair question, but really we try to leave such matters up to the guest. There’s a great customizer tool on our website where customers can craft a burger that fits their needs. So if they’re looking to see the impact of leaving off or putting on x, y or z on their burger, they can do that there.

You mention the influence of the purchasing side. How many providers of ground beef does Red Robin work with?
We have six wonderful vendor partners in strategic regions of the country. We always want to have fresh, fresh beef so it’s important that we have vendors all over the country so we can duplicate the same spec everywhere.

Altogether, how much ground beef does the chain patty and sell in a year?
It’s 18 million pounds a year. I was hoping you’d ask because I’m blown away by that number, too!

Beef prices have been rising and are a challenge for everyone. Is that causing you to rethink any aspect of the menu or your business?
Obviously, it’s a concern. And I can’t tell you it never impacts what we promote. We had the 5 Alarm Chicken sandwich last year. But we really don’t develop toward [commodity price swings]. We really work under a much larger umbrella, focusing instead on what’s craveable and good that you can’t get at home. Again, the benefit of having a broad team is that there’s expertise to help us fit in all parts of the puzzle.

You’ve done some seafood, though, as well as chicken. Will we see a broader menu coming at Red Robin?
Well, we’re always looking to create high-quality menu items of all kinds, burger or other. We have chicken sandwiches and salads, and we have Baja Shrimp Tacos [as an LTO alongside the Big Melt Bacon Burger]. We always want to have what people want to eat.

We’ve seen mini burgers and patty melts and stuffed burgers and other variations in the past few years. Do you have any sense for where the burger is going next?
I think that the more chef-driven, gourmet flavor profiles are going to continue to elevate the category. And I think that from Food Network, or wherever, people are being introduced to more global flavors but they don’t really know where to get them. There are so many cool ethnics flavors that can be delivered in approachable ways that I believe diners will try. I can see that happening with burgers, certainly.

3 comments to Red Robin’s Exec Chef on the Art of the LTO

  • Michael Morrison

    All very exciting things coming from Executive Chef Dave Woolley. The Mt Olympus burger is my personal favorite of all time. I just ate the Mediterranean lamb burger at Red Robin up in Victoria Canada this last weekend. I think Americans are ready for it. What a great article. Thank you for the good read.

    -Red Robin’s Chief Burger Officer

  • Jim Beam burger. Awesome. How about burgers inspired by other drinks. Maybe a burger inspired by Blue Moon beer or Corona? Vacation on a burger.

  • Matt

    The Mt. Olympus Burger was quite possibly one of my favorite meals of all time. Great with grilled chicken too instead of the burger patty.

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