Noodles & Co. CEO Kevin Reddy Talks Innovation

To celebrate the launch of Noodles & Co.'s latest menu item, the Buff Bowls, CEO Kevin Reddy talks about the process of testing new menu items, and how an item goes from the office test kitchen to menus all over the country. 

The Daily Meal: Tell me about the innovation process for testing out a new dish or flavor profile.

Kevin Reddy: The ideas come from all over. We have chefs internally, and not surprisingly, when we go into one of our restaurants, we see that a lot of our team members are making dishes for themselves, which is a fun source of innovation. We also have fair amount of access to chefs within all of our suppliers.

We have a menu and culinary strategy team in which we try to look at trends from around the world and what we think tastes great. We'll come up with an idea and generally start by making that dish in the test kitchen in our office — our corporate office actually has a test kitchen in it with all the equipment that we have in our restaurants, so we're constantly making dishes and experimenting.

We bring in fresh, seasonal produce at least twice a year and we'll start personalizing it and testing it with guests, then employees, and then it moves down a traditional pipeline. If we really like something, and the guests enjoy it, we'll go from that idea to the test kitchen, to one or two restaurants, to the office. We'll begin to make sure that our team members can make and execute it at a high level, get some guest feedback, and move it from there to a market test, where we get to do more research. We go from ideation to commercialization to getting guest feedback, and then we really bring each dish to life in execution.

How often do you try to introduce a new menu item?

We generally have two flights of limited-time offers a year, one in the spring/summer, one in fall/winter. They run about 90 days, and that's really where we look at seasonal ingredients and what's fitting into that timeframe. Because we have a small line of soup, salads, and appetizers, we're able to bring in culinary innovation not just in terms of entrées, but also in appetizers and soups and other small items.

Where do you travel, and where do you eat for menu inspiration?

We have a great internal team that is constantly looking for what's going on around the world, so the first step is looking to our internal team. Within the organization, we all do travel quite a bit. I probably visit the most restaurants when I'm in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, which tend to be the three biggest cities where I try to carve out time. Sometimes I'll search for new restaurants based on good reviews, or sometimes I'll just wander into something because it has a great vibe or smells really good. It's culinary exploration by wandering. 

Tell me about your new menu item, the Buff Bowls. What led you to introduce an item that actually replaces noodles with spinach?

The Buff Bowls showcase some of our customers' favorite items from current dishes, and it really emphasizes the fact that, within Noodles & Company, we have enough choices so that our guests can fully customize. We make each dish to order, and this really highlights that. The key difference between these dishes and their noodle counterparts is that, instead of the noodles, we start with a bed of spinach. We take those same recipes, double the vegetables, and then pair it with a particular protein, whether it's naturally raised beef or organic tofu, so the nutritionals on them are phenomenal.

If you were to introduce a guest chef series, who would you reach out to?

You know who would be an honor to meet, I think, is Alice Waters. She's had such an influence over fresh, local ingredients; it would be such an honor. If I were thinking in terms of actual menu, then I would probably reach out to David Chang from Momofuku. He's got some great, interesting ramen dishes.