3 Ways to Power Up Your Seasonal LTOs

With restaurants still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact—which included declining sales and menus shrinking by 10% on average, according to Datassential analyst Mark Brandau—limited time offer items are a crucial way to woo customers.

“It's always a really smart strategy to continually have new menu items that you can surprise your regulars and keep on top of trends with,” Brandau says. LTOs designed to generate buzz and intrigue are an important menu strategy to implement throughout the year for different seasons and holiday events.

Research indicates promotions that involve a holiday or other seasonal elements can particularly resonate with consumers; 41% say seasonality is a key factor in their decision to order a new menu item when dining out, according to Datassential’s Seasonal LTOs Report.

Creating LTOs that tie into Thanksgiving; Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa; summer or fall—the top times consumers associate with flavors or special dishes they look forward to ordering—may offer operators a bigger LTO bang for their buck than other holidays and seasons.

Only 19% of consumers, for instance, associate Valentine’s Day with certain flavors or foods.

“These one-day or short event cycle things like New Year's Eve or the Super Bowl get plenty of people excited,” Brandau says. “But just not as much as a holiday centered on eating like Thanksgiving does.”

Perfect Promotion Timing

While pumpkin could be considered a fairly mature seasonal LTO trend, operators can potentially benefit, Brandau says, from using more nontraditional tastes in promotional items—flavors that have a still-emerging association with a holiday or season—which can help differentiate your LTO items from a competitor’s seasonal offerings.

“There's a lot that could be done around flavors like apple, cinnamon, nutmeg, butternut squash, maple,” he says. “They make a lot of sense with fall, into the winter holidays; but they may not be quite as obvious as pumpkin or peppermint.”

Different generations may gravitate toward certain events, according to Datassential research—something to take into account if you’re targeting a specific age group.

“Boomers tend to look for things around the religious holidays—Christmas and Hanukkah and Kwanzaa in December, and then Easter and Passover, as well, in spring,” Brandau says. “They're significantly less likely to look for things around Halloween; that tends to be more popular among younger generations.”

Building on Brand Recognition and Trends

Incorporating trending elements and unlikely flavor pairings—such as sweet-and-savory combinations and sweet flavors paired with a component that provides heat—can also give annual LTOs additional appeal, Brandau says.

“A lot of chefs and chain R&D folks and marketers are trying for one or two things that combine really nicely—maple and bacon; apple cinnamon; salted caramel,” he says. “It’s another way to further differentiate from someone that might be doing something apple-flavored or maple-flavored; and a chance to increase the appeal. You expand the possibility of people trying an item if they are intrigued by something [either] sweet or savory.”

Ingredient provider Kerry identified salted caramel as one of the notably popular seasonal flavors in the U.S. this year.

Fast-casual chain Portillo’s began offering a seasonal Salted Caramel Shake in early September; the same month, Dairy Queen announced its fall Blizzard menu would feature a frozen dessert made with salted toffee and fudge pieces and caramel, and Subway announced plans to bring back its Caramel Apple Cookie in October, which the sandwich chain described as “buttery dough mixed with caramel chips and salted caramel crunch.”

“In a lot of our dessert research over the past two or three years, salted caramel is one flavor combination that is just really taking off, and not just in desserts,” Brandau says. “Certainly, if you're looking for a fall hot beverage, it's a really good one, but you can also put it into some entrees if you really get creative with it.”

There are a lot of opportunities with salted caramel and other trending flavors with new product innovation. TWIX® announced it's take on this salty-sweet pairing with TWIX® Salted Caramel Cookie Bars hitting shelves this fall.

Including recognizable name brand products in a seasonal LTO—such as mixing red and green M&M’S® into baked goods like chocolate bread pudding in December— can help your operation stand out and drive trial. Brand mentions have been included in more than a third—37%—of best-in-class LTOs.

Offering Charm and Convenience

As planning for 2022 is underway, restaurants may want to start thinking about how they can help fulfill consumers’ seasonal dining needs throughout the year.

Although people may have traditionally prepared Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and other holiday feasts at home, last year, with travel and gatherings impacted by the pandemic, a number chose to outsource their holiday meal or enjoy it at a restaurant. Ordering holiday meals to go not only reduces stress of holiday meal planning in a trying time, but also allows families to support restaurants in and get a high-quality meal.

This year, people will continue to rely on restaurants to support their holiday meal planning. 70% say they’re open to having a restaurant provide parts of their holiday meal, a meal kit or a prepared and delivered meal; 17% would possibly eat it at a restaurant, according to Datassential.

“Because travel and gathering size is still a little bit in flux this year, this is still going to be an issue,” Brandau says. “It's something worth pursuing for restaurants—to come up with inventive holiday meal ideas [and] find a good way to execute them, either on-premise or off-premise.”

Seasonal changes and annual holidays can serve as a unique opportunity for savvy operators to introduce LTO items—ranging from entire meals to novel side dishes or desserts—that feature festive flavors and formats consumers will find interesting.

Whether a new menu item that’s introduced involves a Thanksgiving-themed milkshake, in-season summer stone fruits or another element, offering a unique take on a familiar time of year can encourage customers to order from or come to your restaurant to try it—and, as a result, help position your organization as a culinary innovator in the industry, while boosting both sales and the bottom line.

For additional promotion, ingredient trends and LTO tips to drive sales, sign up today for Mars Foodservices’ bimonthly e-newsletter.