In recent years, America’s fast-food kitchens have cranked the indulgence dial to 11 and then stuffed that dial with cheese. Just last week, Dunkin’ Donuts announced an Oreo doughnut, which joins menu items like pancake-wrapped sausage nuggets and a breakfast sandwich built on two maple-infused waffles. Friendly’s serves a hamburger with two entire grilled-cheese sandwiches in lieu of a bun. For its Double Down, KFC sandwiched bacon and cheese between two fried chicken patties. After Pizza Hut began stuffing its pizza crusts with cheese, Burger King countered by injecting a burger with cheese and jalapenos.
It’s tempting to think that these inventions emerge, jingle-ready, from an algorithm at corporate headquarters specially designed to seduce our reptilian brains. But many are actually the result of real culinary creativity—the human kind.
In May, when Dunkin’ Donuts announced its executive chef had won a national innovation award, the name on the award was Stan Frankenthaler, a darling of Boston’s high-end food scene in the 1990s and early 2000s. As chef-owner of the Blue Room and then Salamander, Frankenthaler earned three James Beard Award nominations for refined, surprising dishes that mingled a global range of flavors and techniques and earned him national attention from magazines like Gourmet, Travel & Leisure, and Bon Appetit.
In 2005, however, Frankenthaler left the world of tablecloths and wine pairings to become Dunkin Brands’ first executive chef. There, he helps Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin Robbins launch about 30 menu items every year, which Frankenthaler estimates to be 10 percent of the ideas brainstormed by his team of cooks and food scientists.
This year, for leading the Dunkin’ team that dreamed up such delights as Salted Caramel Cashew ice cream, Bagel Twists, and the Angus Steak and Egg Sandwich, Frankenthaler took home the title of MenuMasters Innovator of the Year, a menu R&D award conferred by Nation’s Restaurant News and Ventura Foods, a California maker of cooking oils, margarine, and salad dressings.
How easily does the impulse to create black-tea soaked chicken and lemongrass-basil lobster redirect itself toward French toast ice cream? Ideas spoke to Frankenthaler in his test kitchen, between a high-speed turbo convection oven and a row of booths where volunteers rate prototype versions of potential new sandwiches, coffees, and confections.
IDEAS: Can you compare the approaches to food creativity in your own restaurants and for a mass-market brand?
FRANKENTHALER: If we were to do a new appetizer or entree at one of my restaurants, we would conceive of the item, make it a few times, and put it out there as a special. We’d get that kind of instant feedback that’s very unfiltered. If you get a “yummy” or a “yuck,” then you kind of know where you’re at. Here, it can take anywhere from six months to two years to get a new product onto the menu, depending on the complexity.
IDEAS: Tell us about one of the more complex menu items.
FRANKENTHALER: Well, the Big N’ Toasted breakfast sandwich took a couple of years. One of the things that took a long time was getting the toast just right. We really wanted that thick-cut griddled toast. And the other thing was gaining enough momentum during this economic downturn to present a full-priced sandwich....[W]e thought up this retro, diner-style sandwich. Two eggs, double bacon, and double cheese. It was going to be one of our most expensive sandwiches. So there was a lot of worry. But the market test was incredibly successful.
IDEAS: How does that kind of product-development process affect your creative prerogatives as a chef?
FRANKENTHALER: You can’t drift far from your core, and at our core we’re ice cream and doughnuts. So, you might think, is there anything new there? In fact, ice cream and doughnuts are great, creative canvasses. We just did a really cool doughnut that’s got brownie batter filling.
You know, when you step back and look at the restaurant industry, you can chart a movement from fine dining all the way to [fast food] and in the other direction, too. Like, macaroni and cheese. Now you can have it with lobster and four Italian cheeses. I always liked that movement and how it creates opportunity....You can say, hey, I can remove the barriers. I can take the rules out of this and really excite people.
IDEAS: Where does inspiration come from?
FRANKENTHALER: We see a lot of trends reports. We visit competitors, of course. But we also feed a lot of creativity with things like visits to ethnic grocery stores, Brazilian bakeries, Chinese tea houses, or Japanese bubble tea shops. Like, we went out to some Latin bakeries and tried those guava pastries. And it was like, wow, could we make a guava filling for doughnuts? We also did a doughnut with dulce de leche filling and one with mango.
IDEAS: Do you have any basic principles for judging what new menu ideas are likely to do well and what’s likely to flop?
FRANKENTHALER: In the independent restaurant world, people have a willingness to experiment based on a trust in the chef or the restaurant. I think that at Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin Robbins we also have that great trust with the customer, but we can only push so far at a time in the sense of new trends. Our customers are willing to try things with us, but they want a little bit of familiarity....Like, before we launched anything mango all on its own, we used to combine mango with orange, or with other tropical fruits. That was kind of the way to get people towards something brand new, by putting it with something familiar. I think innovation does require something a little unexpected. We did a bakery item that we called the French Toast Twist, which I think is an example of great innovation, because it brought French toast off the plate. You didn’t get syrup all over yourself. You could eat it in your car.
IDEAS: How about ideas that haven’t worked?
FRANKENTHALER: I think cake doughnuts have this amazing opportunity to be everything that you would think of a cake or a torte or something like that to be. But customers always gravitate to the yeast doughnuts. You know, I thought the ginger bread was a great seasonal, cake doughnut. It really had the flavor and aroma of grandma’s kitchen. It brought out all that nostalgia, and all those memories. But the customers were sort of like, “Yeah, I guess.” And that’s where I feel like, as a chef, I’m going to keep at it. I’m going to figure it out.
Chris Berdik is a journalist in Boston. His book, “Mind Over Mind,” will be published in October by Current, an imprint of Penguin.