The Art of the LTO

Waitress putting out a menu board

Keep guests coming back for more and offer them an expanded experience by getting Limited Time Offer right.

Limited Time Offers (LTOs) have long been a consistent driver of sales and profitability for chain restaurants. The concept is simple—offer unique and/or seasonal ingredients over a restricted period of time. National and regional chains have used LTOs very skillfully, supplementing their regular menus with on-trend ingredients, flavors and dishes that help them stay relevant in competitive environments.

Chains are also adept at capitalizing on another LTO benefit, this one on the cost side. Operators can maximize profitability by timing the market and purchasing products at their most favorable prices—and then using the products to create LTOs priced in line with or higher than regular menu prices.

Independent restaurants have not generally employed LTOs to the same degree or sophistication as chains do, largely due to concerns about product availability, price and consistency. It’s time to put those apprehensions aside. The trend toward smaller core menus as a means to control costs practically requires operators to use LTOs in order to keep the guest experience fresh. Luckily, new tools and resources are available to help independents implement LTOs more easily and effectively. 

While chains have mastered the art of the LTO, the truth is that independents are better positioned to utilize them. Independents have the ability to execute more nimbly, manage their brand more effectively and create more relevant connections with local audiences. Offering LTOs shows customers that you’re innovative, on top of the trends and want to appeal to their taste buds. New flavors also change up the menu experience, giving customers a reason to come back. 

Nimble execution

The ability of independents to quickly execute LTOs is an undeniable competitive advantage. The time it takes for an independent to plan and execute an LTO is much shorter because there are fewer people involved at each step of the process:

  • Menu ideation
  • Testing
  • Staff training for both FOH and BOH
  • Marketing communications (i.e., server messages, table tents, menu inserts, website and social media)

Brand-driven dishes

LTOs must support your current brand. It can be tricky to balance the need to deliver the fresh experience guests expect from every restaurant with the necessity of reinforcing “who you are.” But it’s essential—you don’t want to confuse guests (who may visit twice a month on average) with mixed messages. Think about how you can extend your brand through an LTO. For example, if your brand positioned is, “the best dry rub barbeque house in the city,” you might consider adding dry rub to different steak and chicken cuts—purchased at favorable commodity prices—as LTO options.

Locally relevant communication

Historically, LTOs have been promoted through simple table tents and/or server communication. Today, your online and social media presence allow you to share more timely and customized messaging to guests. The guest perception of independents as “local” allows you to connect more meaningfully with customers, especially if you link LTOs to local events such as:

  • Local sporting events
  • Festivals
  • Key local  holidays
  • City services
  • Community programs

The ultimate success of an LTO will always rest on quality food and execution. But emphasizing a community connection in LTO marketing will help you maximize value and impact.

Menu ideation

Increasing access to diverse foods and a desire for more food exploration continues to raise guest expectations for new and unique dining experiences. The LTO can be employed to deliver experiences that create a true point of differentiation in the market—and to test the value of differentiations before they make it to the full menu. 

The key is to remain focused on your brand but stretch your current guest experience and attract new guests. Consider subtle extensions of the brand that may elevate check average or appeal to different audiences. Getting back to the earlier of the best dry-rub barbecue in town—testing boil-in-the-bag/low-country seafood with the same dry rub ingredients could enhance your check average and expand your customer base. 

The finite shelf life of an LTO enables you to test new ideas with manageable risk. Even if it doesn’t work as well as hoped, you haven’t invested anywhere near what you would in adding an item to your regular menu. 

Get started on spring holidays

You should plan LTOs on a quarterly basis—so now is the time to plan and test them for Easter, Mother’s Day and other spring holidays. Here are some simple steps you can take to maximize success:

  • Start with your brand as your guiding principle
  • Identify your goal (e.g., check average, new clientele, improved profitability, brand extension)
  • Tap into your Sales Representative to understand and capitalize on commodity market conditions
  • Take advantage of resources and insights from your Sales Representative to explore new menu ideas and trends
  • Seek out industry-tested recipes to ensure they can be executed in your commercial kitchen
  • Test recipes in your kitchen with your back-of-house staff
  • Communicate to the public no less than 30 days prior to LTO availability, employing social media and tying them to local events as much as possible
  • Run your LTO no longer than six weeks (a good rule of thumb for all LTOs) 

Give customers what they want

LTOs are essential to meeting guests’ desire for new experiences. You can be sure that guests will seek these experiences elsewhere if you don’t offer them. Remember, independents are better able to utilize LTOs than chains are, so you should not hesitate to exploit this competitive advantage. 

The upcoming spring holidays are prime occasions to reach guests who may not normally visit your establishment. Give them something to talk about, anticipate enjoy a fresh menu experience.

LTO tool

Ask your Sales Representative about MenuStudioPlus, a web-based system that helps you create your own LTO menus, feature sheets, signage, table tents and more.