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P.J. Whelihan’s quest for the perfect bar food menu: ‘Could we be serving *better* nachos?’

Restaurants change their menus all the time. Thanks to in-house printers and easy layout apps, some chefs switch up their menus as regularly as every day. Many more print up daily-changing lists of specials.

The malleable menu approach can work well when a chef is running a single kitchen — especially if it’s on the smaller size. But for a chain, even one that’s independently owned and run, things aren’t quite as simple.

Bring on the focus groups.

After starting in 1983 with a single location in Lehighton, PA, there are now 15 P.J. Whelihan’s locations across the Southeast PA / South Jersey region (though none in Philadelphia). The casual pub has built a reputation on a great selection of draft beer, but also — and perhaps even more — a menu of reliable, crowd-pleasing bar food. People who go to one location know that if they visit any of the others, they’ll get the same familiar burgers, apps and sandwiches.

That said, diners today don’t want monotony. Or if they do, they can easily find it at a huge national chain or fast food joint. Thanks in part to the huge online universe always at our fingertips, most of us look to feed a craving for things that are new.

The P.J. Whelihan’s folks recognized this, and developed a system to infuse their menu of favorites with novelty on a regular basis. It’s a procedure that welcomes creativity but also takes into account popular appeal. Thanks to an invite to go behind the scenes, Billy Penn got a look at how it goes down.

1) Brainstorming

Pretzel sliders with Dogfish Head bratwurst and pushcart onions / DANYA HENNINGER

Every two months, culinary director Rich Friedrich and corporate chef Jacky Platzer come up with a list of possible new offerings. These dishes can be riffs on past menu successes, inspired by things seen at other venues, or just entirely new.

“Sometimes we just look at a dish we already serve and consider if it needs a change — could we be serving *better* nachos, for instance?” explained P.J.W. Restaurant Group COO Jim Fris.

Once they’ve narrowed it down to around eight new contenders, Friedrich and team test each item’s recipe until they think it’s show-ready.

2) Focus Grouping

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The P.J.W. test kitchen in Westmont, NJ / DANYA HENNINGER

At a corporate test kitchen in Westmont, NJ, the chefs prepare each new candidate dish for a panel of P.J.W. hospitality execs. As the panel taste-tests, each plate gets rated on four factors: presentation (does it look appealing?), portion size (does it overwhelm, or feel meager?), temperature (did the dish arrive appropriately hot or chilled?) and balance of flavor — does it actually taste good?

At the end of the hour-long session, which conveniently takes place during lunch, score sheets are collected, and assessments are made. Punches are not pulled — this is ground zero, after all, the first defense against serving not-great food to customers. If none of the dishes are great, the group sometimes ends up hungry and even orders supplemental pizza from Treno, which is right downstairs. It doesn’t happen too often, but it has gone down.

3) Refining

Watermelon salad was refined before landing on the August/September LTO menu / DANYA HENNINGER

Comments are evaluated and candidate dishes meet one of three fates. If they’re universally loved, which is sometimes the case, they’re moved up to the next level. If they have potential but need work, they’ll go back to the culinary team for a second try, and be taste-tested again in a week. If they’re flops, they’re booted out of consideration.

During a recent session, an overflowing platter holding watermelon chicken salad was well-liked, but deemed to not contain enough feta cheese — you didn’t get the salty punch in each bite. Back for refinement. A dish called Jersey Tomato & Chicken Salad, however, did not make the cut: not enough tomatoes, not enough roasted corn, superfluous inclusion of hard boiled eggs. Back to the drawing board.

4) Beta Testing

Frito Tots, with chili, jalapeno cheese sauce, Fritos, red onion, cilantro-lime crema and fresh jalapenos / DANYA HENNINGER

Dishes that graduate from the focus group end up on a list of specials that’ll be served at all 15 locations, but only for around two months at a time. These “Limited Time Offering” menus tilt toward seasonal offerings (watermelon in the summer, pumpkin in the fall), but can also include anytime food — new takes on burgers, twists on loaded tots.

For example, the final LTO menu queued up for August/September includes that watermelon chicken salad (seasonal), but also mini pretzel sandwiches with Dogfish Head bratwurst topped with pushcart onion relish, as well as Sriracha crispy chicken tacos (both anytime).

5) Menu Addition

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Corporate chef Jacky Platzer and culinary director Rich Friedrich / DANYA HENNINGER

Finally, if there’s an LTO special that sells extremely well — and there isn’t always — it will graduate from beta and be added to the official regular menu.

One of the most popular bar snacks in P.J.W. history started out as an LTO special, in fact: Tot’chos, for which tots get topped with pico de gallo, jalapeno cheese sauce, sour cream, cheddar jack and guacamole. Friedrich has discovered that tot dishes in general are big sellers — something on April/May LTO list called “Bacon Shock Tots” sold so well (more than 7300 times), that it’s seriously being considered as a potential permanent addition.

Burger variations also commonly start out as LTO specials, waiting for customers to live beta-test them into permanence. The JD Bacon Burger is the chain’s No. 2 selling dish overall (with Vermont cheddar and Jack Daniels maple ketchup), coming in right after the Buffalo chicken wrap, and it began life as an LTO offering.

6) Customer Feedback

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Smoked cheddar bacon burger with sundried tomato aioli and sliced pickles / DANYA HENNINGER

P.J. Whelihan’s menus are printed on paper placemats and already contain 96 items, so there’s limited space to add new things. When a new one goes on, it often knocks off another, less popular dish.

Such was the fate of “Buffalo Bomb Fries,” but when the dish — waffle fries tossed in sauce and topped with Buffalo chicken nuggets, blue cheese and fry sauce — disappeared from the menu, it caused a huge outcry. One dedicated regular even started a Twitter campaign to bring it back, pinging the restaurant and its executives with pleas on a consistent basis. He picked up supporters along the way, too, and eventually management gave in. If customers had such an affinity for the dish, who were they to stand in the way? Back on the menu it went, and it’s remained ever since.

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