When a new vendor came to Johnny Rockets this year, wanting to test its milkshake ingredients against those the burger brand already used, Johnny Rockets decided to put the choice in the hands of consumers.

In early September over the course of two days, Johnny Rockets held its first official Shake Lab. At the brand’s original location on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood, guests came out and taste-tested the usual shakes versus the new ones with the vendor's ingredients or with fresh fruit. They also got to create their own milkshake flavors, turning a simple vendor proposal into a full-blown fan appreciation event.

"We haven't introduce a new shake in a very long time," says Cozette Phifer, vice president of brand communications at Johnny Rockets. "In the past, we had just tasted them ourselves in our restaurants and asked what our own employees thought. And taking it to the streets has been something that we've learned as we go along. Now, we test everything in our corporate restaurants."

At stake during the Shake Lab were the ingredients for four staple milkshake flavors: vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, and banana. Vanilla and chocolate were test items on day one, while strawberry and banana stepped up to bat on day two. Different vendor ingredients for the shakes, such as purées, were sampled throughout the two days.

For instance, with the banana shake, Johnny Rockets tested a banana purée versus real bananas. The same was true for the strawberries. Unsurprisingly, guests voted overwhelmingly for the shake with the real fruit mixed in.

"It proved the proof is in the pudding, that people prefer the flavor of real fruit," Phifer says. "Despite the enhanced shelf life and all of these other properties with purées and similar ingredients, we saw that what a lot of vendors told us isn't necessary true. Our guests really like the taste of fresh banana in their banana shake."

With customers' backing, Phifer says Johnny Rockets also found it easier to deny vendors whose flavors did not stack up to guest preferences. "We now know which vendors we're going with. It's easier to say no when it's based on what our guests want, versus just what we think they will like. It's easier to say no to a vendor when you have that backing behind you."

Another aspect of the Shake Lab was allowing guests to come up with their own milkshake concoctions. Local bloggers were invited to join the Shake Lab event, and Phifer says many of them invented flavors that the brand is now pursuing. "We're talking to our vendors about what's available to make them happen, and it's not too far-fetched," she says.

As Johnny Rockets just hired its first research and development chef, promoting him from a consultant to a full-time gig, the burger company plans on holding more events such as the Shake Lab that simultaneously involve guests in appreciation events and yield verbatim feedback on new products. New fries and new seasoning are already in the works.

By Sonya Chudgar

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Industry News, Menu Innovations