This past fall, at my biggest show, I made a menu mistake. We were able to salvage it and turn it into a giant win, but not before customer feedback stirred us to action.
When I bought this shop at the Texas Renaissance Festival, it was considered a bakery, but no actual baking took place there. The owners of the shop were in their 70s, and most of their product line was bought frozen, then thawed and served. The festival runs for 8 weekends every fall, along with a couple of student field trip days. So, this means that while I’ve owned the place for 7 years, it’s been open to the public under my control for a grand total of 133 days. I’ve steadily shifted the place to be a better expression of my own personality, and a collection of better menu items for the audience. My crew has evolved to one that ‘gets me’ better as well.
In this improvement process we had eliminated all of the frozen baked products except for one, a high quality frozen cinnamon roll. This year (2012), I vowed we would make our cinnamon rolls from scratch. Since they were very labor intensive, I thought we could just run cinnamon rolls as a special. After all, we had at least 25 other hand-made baked goods to choose from. Surely folks would simply choose another item. Surely they would rather have a handmade cinnamon roll, hot from the oven, rather than one that went from the freezer into the warmer? Nope. People wanted cinnamon rolls, and they were MAD when the choice wasn’t there. “How can you call yourselves a bakery when you don’t have cinnamon rolls?!” My salesperson replied with “Um … because we *bake* everything here?” At a Renaissance Faire we have a lot of leeway in how we interact with the public, because they’ve come for an interactive experience, but we quickly decided the proper response to their outrage was to explain we were now making them from scratch, and that they’d be a special of the day. We promised to put up an announcement on the Texas Renaissance Festival Foods Facebook page to let them know when that would be. This appeased a few, but so many of the festival’s 600,000 customers save up for a single annual trip … there was no fixing the fact that I hadn’t had cinnamon rolls on the day they visited.
This was a real problem. There is no short-cut to real cinnamon rolls, so they are always going to be labor-intense, and therefore expensive to make.
So the question was how to make the roll something amazing enough to charge real money for it. I bought a new proofer to be able to regulate the rise of the rolls better than our “relatively air-tight, oh it probably needs more boiling water” old warming box. My baker Vandal and I decided on a serving size that would feel like a Texas experience: barely fitting into a 2# paper tray. He made a batch, cut them, and got them into the proofer in time to have some ready at 7:30 when we opened for the festival participants’ breakfast. Then I asked him to make a second batch, and to line it with soft-cooked bacon before rolling.
Vandal grumbled the entire time he was rolling and cutting that first batch of Cinnamon Squealers. In fact, he vowed to never add that tedious step again. It was a vow he quickly rescinded when our guests started yelling towards the kitchen door that we were geniuses, and obviously were on a path to world domination with our evil plan to compromise every diet plan imaginable. The experiment was an instant success. We were selling basic cinnamon rolls for $5 each and Cinnamon Squealers for $6 each. We sold out daily. We still don’t know the best number to bake in a day. They are still labor and time intense items, so we would make as many as we could, and note what time we sold out. We’re installing a new walk-in refrigerator for 2013, to allow us the ability to make more rolls and retard them in the fridge until time to go into the proofer.
The Public Relations team at the Texas Renaissance Festival was certainly part of the success. I would tweet a picture of the process, and Cory would repost it on the Texas Renaissance Festival Facebook page, which has over 112,000 very interactive fans. We had several customers come to the counter asking for specific items they’d seen the festival post, but the instant success of the Cinnamon Squealers was still a shock for all of us.
So the menu mistake turned into a menu-win, but only because we truly cared about our customer’s experience. It would have been easy to dismiss a guest’s request for a frozen-then-thawed cinnamon roll as an uneducated palate, but instead we tried to make his visit everything he wanted it to be. Obviously, his perfect day at TRF began with a cinnamon roll. Now it begins with an extraordinary cinnamon roll.