All Articles Food Restaurant and Foodservice Creating the next "it" food: The rise of limited time offerings

Creating the next “it” food: The rise of limited time offerings

5 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

How operators are turning long lines, secret menus, and limited quantities into marketing opportunities

Since Chef Dominique Ansel released his croissant-doughnut hybrid last year, operators and manufacturers have been asking themselves, “How do we create the next cronut?” In an age where trends seem to capture our attention one minute and disappear the next, how do operators break through the noise and introduce the next craveable creation?

The surprising answer may come in the form of long lines, dishes missing from the menu, and running out of products. What sound like surefire ways to annoy customers and go bankrupt are quickly becoming popular marketing tactics designed to create buzz around new menu introductions and create the next viral sensation.

Novelty and innovation certainly help — like Ansel’s hybrid dessert or the three-hour waits for New York’s ramen burgers. But customers in Chicago are lining up for old-fashioned strawberry glazed doughnuts at Doughnut Vault, while diners in Austin wait four hours for the classic brisket at Franklin Barbecue. Portland’s Le Pigeon created a local media sensation when they offered only five of their famous burgers each evening. As any luxury brand knows, scarcity is key.

Kitchen LTO, a permanent pop-up restaurant in Dallas that reinvents itself three times a year, implores customers to “Pop In Before the Chef Pops Out” on the restaurant’s website, which features a timer counting down the number of days the menu will be available. When Doughnut Vault and Franklin run out for the day, they close (the early-morning line at Franklin is sometimes so long that the restaurant is closed before it even opens). And when Chef Grant Achatz put three months’ worth of tickets for his Chicago restaurant Next on sale at once, they sold out in less than two hours (the restaurant says nearly 16,000 people were trying to lock in reservations at one point).

Image via Flickr user **RCB**

And there is no better way to advertise scarcity and demand than a long line. When Sizzler opened their ZZ Food Truck, the brand’s director of new concept design told AdWeek that they saw an area of opportunity in the long lines — “We’d see all these long lines at food trucks and talk about how we could capitalize on that by getting our food out in a few minutes without compromising quality.” But they quickly realized their mistake. “At these food truck festivals, that’s what people look for — the truck with the longest lines.”

According to Datassential’s upcoming Creative Concepts TrendSpotting Report on operators creating viral, craveable products and dishes, 17% of consumers reported that they had stood in line to try a trendy food truck, and 12% had woken up early to get to a popular restaurant or food vendor (male consumers were particularly apt to rise early to try something new).

Of course, limited time offerings, or LTOs, are nothing new in the restaurant industry, with brands marketing the limited availability or seasonal re-introduction of products like the Taco Bell Doritos Locos Taco or Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte. 39-unit Burgerville ties their limited time offerings to the seasonality of their menu, similar to the marketing of “blink-and-you’ll-miss-them” ramps on fine dining menus every spring. But it also means brands are working harder to roll out extreme limited time offerings and “stunt foods” in order to capture short attention spans. When Carl’s Jr. tested their hybrid Pop-Tart Ice Cream Sandwich at a few locations in Southern California, the company says they had “no choice” but to take it nationwide after it went “viral to the degree that this one did.” McDonald’s even introduced one-day only ultra-premium burger limited time offerings in Japan, like the Black Diamond Quarter Pounder with Emmental cheese and black truffle sauce.

Letting customers in on some “insider” knowledge also helps. Lists of “secret” menu items from operators like Starbucks, Jamba Juice, and In-N-Out Burger continue to make the rounds on the internet, often featuring outlandish creations like burgers with four patties or smoothies that taste like candy or cereal. Del Taco says they created their Chili Cheese Fry Burrito after realizing that customers were creating it themselves at restaurants, according to Wired. According to Datassential’s research, secret menus are particularly popular with Millennials — nearly 20% have ordered from one, compared with 8% of baby boomers.

Taco Bell even created “taco speakeasies” in select cities, where social media fans could “unlock” secret locations, like a quiet flower shop in New York, so that fans could be the first to try the new Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Taco. In fact, speakeasies, where you may have to know a secret password to open an unmarked door, have seen a modern resurgence recently, according to our upcoming Creative Concepts: The New Speakeasy TrendSpotting Report. At New York’s Please Don’t Tell, for instance, customers enter through an unassuming phone booth in the back of a hot dog joint, while San Diego’s Noble Experiment is hidden behind a door disguised as a wall of beer kegs inside the city’s Neighborhood craft beer bar.

For some customers, the excitement and cachet is worth it. As one consumer, who had waited in line for a cronut, told us: “I only wait for really special, different things. I think the wait is part of the fun and exclusivity.”


Maeve Webster is the senior director of Datassential, a supplier of trends, analysis, and concept testing for the food industry.  Its TrendSpotting Reports provide food companies with trend ideas from early-stage inception through late-stage ubiquity, and it’s all backed by MenuTrends, an industry database. For more information about Datassential or any of the content found in this report, contact Webster at [email protected].