As much as people look forward to the holiday buzz, it often comes with a dash of stress. But if there’s one place families should be able to escape the chaos, it’s dining out, says Becky Boyd, director of menu innovation and strategy at Bloomin’ Brands.
At Outback Steakhouse, starting in November, the chain played its role by launching “Steakmas Season,” or nine menu items that spun traditional items and introduced indulgent new ones. Boyd, whose tenure with the company dates to 2004, says Outback’s R&D this time of year works under a banner of “togetherness and indulgence,” and a compass that centers on two things Outback is known for: No. 1, steak. And No. 2, depending on whom you ask (although it’s not much of a debate, really), onions, thanks to perhaps the most iconic appetizer ever concepted in the Bloomin’ Onion, which Tim Gannon created in 1988.
“So how could we really do some riffs on steak and onions but still bring back some items that our guests love?” Boyd says.
Beginning with what Outback dubbed “the star of Steakmas,” featuring the same large onions as the Bloomin’ Onion, the chain introduced an 18-ounce Bone-In Ribeye with Bourbon Onion. Extra marbled, the steak is topped with a caramelized Jim Beam bourbon onion, plus bacon and roasted garlic butter, and served with the choice of a steakhouse potato and side.
Chef Efrem Cutler, VP for R&D at Bloomin’ Brands, jokes he’s a bourbon drinker who happens to pour a glass or two extra around the holidays. Beyond the idea of kicking back, the flavor profiles of bourbon have always been holiday appropriate, he says. Boyd, who heads up beverages, picked Jim Beam when Cutler asked for a bourbon that could stand up to the process and not cook away its profile. “It has a lot of volatile vanilla flavors and caramel notes that work really well with that caramelized onion, and, of course, the char with our secret seasoning on the ribeye,” he says.
“You’ve got to test all that bourbon when you’re making all that butter,” Cutler laughs. “We have a good time down in the R&D kitchen.”
Boyd continues Outback had to take something else into consideration as well this year—the ever-shifting parameters of value. The Bone-In Ribeye with Bourbon Onion runs about $33 or so (it varies depending on add-ons). Although this isn’t a new concept in casual dining, how value is defined by customers, especially around celebratory occasions, has been heightened by the general rising costs of day-to-day life. So for Outback, she says, the bottom line positioning had to be, was it worth what I paid? “And it doesn’t necessarily mean that that price point needs to be low,” Boyd says. “But you have to deliver on what the guest expects to get for that price. That can be the portion on the plate. If I’m going to get the Bone-In Ribeye and pay over $30, it better be an abundant amount of food. And we know that also means we have to be able to deliver on flawlessly executing that every time, too, when our guests order it.”
“We need to look at some things from a price-point perspective and others, when we’re going to charge a little more for this, what is going to be the big wow and this is worth me coming into Outback and trying this time because it’s something I can’t get anywhere else and it’s something unique,” she adds.
One illustration: Bloomin’ French onion petals aren’t being made at home, at least by most people. On the other end of the barbell is a Bloomin’ French Onion Sirloin that starts at $16.99 for the 6-ounce version, or the price of some fast-casual salads these days. The item was inspired by two Outback staples—the French Onion Soup and the Bloomin’ Onion. The signature center-cut sirloin (the steak that put the brand on the map) is topped with melted Provolone cheese and Bloomin’ Onion Petals and served with the choice of potato and a side. Boyd says the dish was developed as a “No Rules, Just Right” option where customers can do whatever they like with the food. They can pour French Onion soup over their steak, dip the petals, load up the potato, or just drink the soup out of the ramekin. “It’s very indulgent and great for this time of year,” she says. And on the value topic, this is one iteration where the amount of food you get for what you pay isn’t hard to decipher.
Cutler says Bloomin’ constantly tracks trends and conducts research to understand what the guest is trying to tell the brand. Outback has innovated in recent months around “Tim Tam,” from a sundae that combined Tim Tam cookie crumbles, honey caramel popcorn and vanilla ice cream with chocolate, caramel, and whipped cream toppings to a more recent Tim Tam Brownie Cake that features a chocolate brownie, peanut butter, and chocolate mousse topped with caramel sauce and Arnott’s Tim Tam cookies.
Arnott’s Tim Tam cookies are an Australian chocolate biscuit that’s been in circulation since 1964 and consists of two malted biscuits separated by a light hard chocolate cream filling and coated in a thick layer of textured chocolate.
“To me that’s nostalgia all day long,” Cutler says. “Taking a historic cookie and putting it in luxurious, delicious dessert that’s exclusive to Outback.”
Cutler adds the Bloomin’ French Onion Sirloin is “pretty on trend” when you consider the preference of soups and comfort flavors. But the larger idea at work, as the Tim Tam experience shows, is finding a path to intertwine beloved and unexpected flavors in ways that leave a customer walking away thinking what they spent was worth what they received.
“We can innovate but we need to be able to execute it flawlessly,” Boyd reiterates. “And also from there, it has to really stay true to the Outback brand and what Outback is. Outback is bold flavors and we’re fun, we don’t mind being a little irreverent with what we’re doing. We don’t take ourselves real seriously but we do take our food and beverage seriously. So it needs to deliver on flavor and experience, but if it doesn’t feel like it’s bold, we’re not going to do it.”
For instance, something Outback’s competition wouldn’t do is lean into Australian flavors. The founding of the brand dates back to the notion of taking a distant—and potentially unreachable—destination for a lot of customers and bringing it into the backyard for a nightly escape. She says the Tim Tam Brownie Cake has been one of “our most popular desserts that we’ve ever done.”
“To be able to lean into those makes it a lot of fun, because we can do things that others can’t do authentically,” Boyd says.
Like Cutler, Boyd says she’s always trailing the pulse of diner preferences. One thing she’s watching now is the low- and no-alcohol beverage movement. It might not be fully into the casual scene just yet, but it’s something to track. Data from IWSR Drinks Market Analysis last year forecasted 25.4 percent growth in non-alcoholic offerings in the U.S. through 2026 and 5.9 percent expansion in the low-alcohol segment. “I’m staying close to it,” she says.
One thing that has definitely found its way into the R&D lab, though, is experiential offerings. Or as Boyd puts it, “the theatrics piece to it.” An example at Outback would be the Smoked Cinnamon Pecan Old Fashioned: Woodford Reserve Bourbon, Angostura bitters, and house-infused cinnamon pecan syrup, smoked with oak. There’s a tableside presentation where a server lifts the lid and smoke wafts onto the table. Over the summer, Outback went viral with an “Aussie JAWssie” cocktail with New Amsterdam Raspberry Vodka, Blue Curacao, a trio of citrus juices, “dangerous dose” of grenadine, and a shark floating in the glass.
@kaitkabob I turned 21 yesterday you know I had to get the Aussie Jawssie drinkie winkie ❣️I think I missed the cup though. #sharkdrink #outbacksharkdrink #aussiejawsie #aussiejawssie ♬ original sound – Kait
“It’s just getting to interact with the drink in a way that you want to as a guest,” Boyd says. “I see that as a trend. It’s so fun. I’m loving it.”
From a timing perspective, Boyd says Outback works on LTOs and other such launches up to a year in advance, depending on what the logistics entail. Some are six months out. Either way, whatever is devised and launched has to be ideated under the Outback principles outlined earlier, and also from an operational sense of what can be rolled out effectively and consistently.
“We are irreverent,” Cutler says. “We do try to push the envelope and really have fun in the dining room for our guests to interact with our staff and our cuisine and sometimes it takes a little bit more planning working with our suppliers to get the items that we need in order to execute that. But the strategy is putting the guests’ needs at the forefront of our decisions. We’ve got an ear to the ground, listening to our guests so we can provide them exactly what they’re looking for.”
The rest of the menu:
- The Chocolate Tower is a 6-layer chocolate cake topped with whipped cream and chocolate shavings and served with raspberry sauce.
- Gingerbread Cookie Martini—Absolut Vodka, Bailey’s Irish Cream and Kahlúa hand-shaken with flavors of creamy vanilla and gingerbread and garnished with a dollop of whipped cream and a mini gingerbread cookie.
- Bloomin’ Fried Shrimp—bite-sized shrimp hand-breaded with Bloomin’ Onion spices. Drizzled and served with signature spicy bloom sauce.
- Steakhouse Mac & Cheese Bites—Eight golden bites filled with macaroni, Asiago, Mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. erved with house-made ranch dressing.
- Kingsland Pasta—Grilled steak and shrimp served over fettuccine tossed in an alfredo sauce.
- Wedge Salad—Crisp wedge of iceberg lettuce topped with tomato, red onions, bacon, and homemade blue cheese dressing, drizzled with balsamic glaze.