About a year ago, a team from Maggiano's Little Italy sat down with focus groups in Atlanta and Chicago and asked them a simple question: What do you think about when you think of healthy Italian food?
"They typically laughed or said it's an oxymoron, that it's impossible," says Michael Breed, senior director of marketing for Maggiano's. "Their associations with healthy Italian were: It's not going to have pasta, it's not going to have any cream sauces, no cheese, no breading, no butter, none of the good stuff. Basically, healthy Italian would take away all the reasons they eat Italian."
Maggiano's recently launched its Lighter Take menu—which has 11 dishes and slashes their calories by a third or a half, compared to the original menu item—and took an extra step to make sure the light plates hold up. It opened a nondescript pop-up restaurant in Chicago's Wicker Park, a neighborhood with high-end eateries and trendy independents, and served up Maggiano's light menu without telling guests they were really eating food from Maggiano's. The results were so positive that the brand and its chefs knew they had created a menu worthy of the brand.
An ad campaign follows the adventure of the pop-up restaurant, dubbed Venire A Luce, from the 48-hour set-up to guests’ surprise and excitement at the ultimate reveal. The pop-up shop reinforced how Maggiano's has culinary-trained chefs in its scratch kitchens and how its food delivers against the expectations of a high-end independent.
"We heard from guests that their experience with healthy Italian in other restaurants is they're either slashing the portion so much to get a reasonable calorie claim that it's not fulfilling, or they're creating dishes that might be healthier but don't resemble something that's truly Italian, or Italian-American especially," Breed says. "We knew we couldn't do that."
Maggiano's decision to start working on a light menu last year reflects how consumers' expectations are shifting as they seek healthier items at restaurants. "There are going to be times when you completely indulge and want an original dish, and then there are other times, for various reasons and motivations, when you’re looking for something lighter," Breed says. "We're hearing guests who are making different dietary choices for reasons related to health and taking care of themselves."
To reinvent the classics in a more nutritious format, Breed says the chefs at Maggiano's had to look no further than what was already in their kitchens. "Because we have scratch kitchens, really all the ingredients were already in house," Breed says. "We used things we already had at our fingertips in the kitchen to just build in flavor and be able to scale back on butter and things like that a little bit."
One thing the restaurant did do differently is add fresh pasta, which is bulkier and has better plate coverage, and is also more filling.
Twelve rounds of focus groups in Atlanta and Chicago, where the company is based and has loyal fans, provided crucial feedback. "We didn't come in with a cream sauce dish," Breed says. "We had the chicken parmesan, the baked ziti, and things like that, but we heard loud and clear in the focus groups that we had to have a cream sauce."
Chefs created an alfredo that still had Asiago and heavy cream, but bolstered it with chicken stock, which cut down on the cream but not the flavor. Consumer responses also led the chefs to make more minor tweaks along the way, such as finding a new chicken spec that provided ample lightness and tenderness.
Of course, the ultimate test for the new menu items was whether consumers actually felt they had the great quality and taste that Maggiano's purported. So, the Italian brand briefed its ad agency, IMM out of Boulder, Colorado, on what it had created, and IMM helped shape the idea for the pop-up restaurant.
"We could get a real reaction to whether these dishes could stand on their own, which is really what the benchmark was," Breed says. "The thought was, let's let people come in and let the dishes stand on their own. There won't be any healthy claim behind it, and there won't be the benefits of the Maggiano's name giving a belief about quality. Let the guests come in with a blank slate."
Guests discovered that the dishes delivered on portion and flavor, and Breed says they were thrilled to learn Maggiano's was going to have them on its menu.
By Sonya Chudgar