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In Instagram age, Chili’s pays for buns with photo appeal

NEW YORK (AP) — Chili’s says it’s spending about $750,000 a year for an egg wash that gives its burger buns a photogenic glaze. It’s part of an effort by the chain to get you to take pictures of its food and post them online.

“It just makes it look great. It glistens, it shines,” said Wyman Roberts, CEO of Brinker International, the parent company of Chili’s.

The new buns were introduced this past fall after the chain hired a brand consulting firm to help keep its menu in step with changing attitudes about food. The firm, Continuum, came up with the idea of seeing everything through the filter of “New School” customers, who sound a lot like millennials but aren’t defined strictly by age.

In addition to using burger buns with an egg wash, Roberts said the chain also recently started serving its fries in a stainless steel holder that “looks cool.” And ribs are no longer served in big slabs reminiscent of The Flintstones cartoons, but are cut into sections and stacked.

In evaluating whether a dish will appeal to New School customers, Chili’s now considers whether it’s “shareable.”

“That doesn’t mean just big portions. That means stuff they could take a picture of, because they all like to share,” Roberts said.

The tendency of snapping photos of food and posting them on social media sites like Instagram is capturing the attention of other food industry executives too. At its annual analyst and investor conference in December, Yum Brands CEO Greg Creed said the compulsion to “art direct” food before eating it is part of a “revolution” in the industry.

Creed cited the photo-taking habit as an example that food has gone from mere fuel, to an experience people want to share.

“They are not going to do things if they don’t believe it’s shareable,” Creed said in describing millennials.

At Chili’s, that consideration is now a part of the menu development process. It’s why the chain decided a bun with an egg wash glaze was worth the extra money. That’s even though the difference is cosmetic and doesn’t affect the taste, Roberts said.

In addition to the visual changes, Chili’s also developed a “lighthouse menu” as a guide for what its menu might look like in the future. The need to evolve is clear; in each of its past two fiscal years, sales at established Chili’s locations rose less than 1 percent as sit-down chain restaurants have struggled amid growing competition.

Still, Roberts said Chili’s has to be careful about moving too quickly. Even though its “New School” lens will help it keep up with tastes, he noted the chain still has plenty of “Old School” customers it needs to avoid alienating.

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Follow Candice Choi at www.twitter.com/candicechoi

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