Cafe Society

T.G.I. Friday's the latest restaurant company to use Denver as a taste-test market

Following in the footsteps of several national restaurant chains and other food businesses, T.G.I. Friday's is using Denver to test both a new look and new menu items, including dishes with more fresh and made-from-scratch ingredients -- all designed to help the restaurant break out of the casual-dining crowd. And the company has found Denver uniquely suited as a testing ground.

"Denver as a test market is so aptly positioned because of the diversity and people hailing from other places," says Jen Lester, owner of Philosophy Communication, a local marketing and public relations firm that helped Friday's with its testing.

Aside from having a national palate, Denverites are also opinionated. "They know what they like and they let you know, which is good," says Kristen Worner, director of operations for T.G.I. Friday's in Colorado. "You have good marketing buys here, and you've got the mountains that geographically separate you from the rest of the country." Chick-Fil-A, Epic Vodka and Mars Chocolate have all used the Denver market to test products during the economic downturn, since this city's diverse, educated and young population is still willing to spend money on dining.

Friday's was founded in 1965 in New York City, one of the first singles bars in America. From that beginning, it's grown to a company with 600 restaurants across the country, including eight in Colorado. But only the six in the metro Denver area are part of the test, trying out twenty new menu items.

The new dishes focus less on fried food and more on fresh, green items, such as ahi tuna with avocado crisps, vegetarian sandwiches and pizzas. The fried mozzarella sticks are gone, and the breadsticks are now baked rather than fried. For initial feedback, the chain brought in food consultant Roger Kaplan and held tastings at the corporate offices in Dallas. "The biggest change is how much of the items are made in-house," says Worner. "It adds labor for us, but it also adds to the pride we take in the menu."

The changes are not just to the menu, but to the space. Three metro locations -- in Northfield Stapleton, Town Center of Aurora, and Thornton -- are getting cosmetic changes, including knocking down walls to give the restaurants a more open feel.

"We're trying to change the conversation at Friday's and make it more about the sharable dishes and more of an event where you bring your friends and family," says Lester. "If you go into Friday's, they have a great vibe. It emanates from the bar and the bartenders. So now they are matching the food with the great vibe and energy they have."

As the eighteenth-largest media market in the country, Denver still has affordable print and radio advertising, too -- but Friday's is also using non-traditional methods to spread the word. The six metro Friday's locations have held 25 consumer tasting parties since mid-October, with members of the restaurant's loyalty club invited to sample the new menu items that will be rolled out nationwide in the new year. On November 14, Friday's also sent flash mobs complete with music and dancers on November 14 to the Broncos-Chiefs game, the Pepsi Center, and Town Center of Aurora.

The tasting parties all filled up within three hours, some within fifteen minutes. In ten years of restaurant marketing, Lester says, she's never seen such a quick response. On surveys, the parties have received a 76 percent approval rating. But that's from people who are already part of Friday's loyalty club and were given free food. So what about locavores not keen on chain restaurants?

"That is so difficult, because people, especially the foodies around town -- they don't want to have anything to do with it," says Lester. "That's been a huge challenge, and thank God for Friday's, because they took our advice. One of the things we really talked about is that we need to have something Colorado on the menu, and we do."

That Colorado item? Hot pretzels served with a beer cheese sauce made with Colorado Native Lager from the AC Golden Brewery. The Denver Friday's locations also serve several craft and local beers. And when the new menu is introduced nationwide, each market is likely to feature local items.

While Friday's chose Denver for testing in part because it has a relatively stable economy in these trying financial times, the real test will come when the free promotional dinners go away. "I absolutely think it's going to have a lasting effect," says Worner. "Just in our consumer tasting parties, we've seen people trying the food, finding a favorite, and then coming in and trying it or ordering that two or three times a week."

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