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This Frisch's chef holds the keys to quality control -- and keeps the menu fresh, too

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Posted at 11:45 AM, Sep 12, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-12 12:20:13-04

When Greg Grisanti makes a change to the restaurant menu, the change cascades through a whopping 121 restaurants.

Greg Grisanti, director of research and development for Frisch's. Photo provided by Grisanti.

As the director of research and development for Frisch's, Grisanti is tasked with keeping the menu fresh and exciting, while ensuring the food is prepared correctly and consistently at all locations. That’s a tall order for a brand that made its mark in Cincinnati with the Big Boy burger nearly 70 years ago. The food has to remain attractive to the fan base yet relevant to new and more contemporary diners.

Born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Grisanti was born into a large restaurant family. As the youngest of seven siblings, he started working in his father's fine dining Italian restaurant when he was 10 years old.

"My first job was sweeping floors and cleaning bathrooms," he said.

Grisanti graduated to washing dishes and eventually assisting the chef by the time he entered high school. He went on to study business and marketing at the University of Louisville but decided to pivot to culinary school at Johnson & Wales in North Carolina.

After graduating, Grisanti returned to work at various restaurants. He entered the corporate world when he joined Winston Industries, the company that designed the first pressure fryer for Colonel Sanders.  More recently, he was the director of research and development for Panera Bread.

Grisanti's early training in from-scratch cooking at his father's restaurant made Frisch's made-from-scratch approach feel like a return to his roots.

“We grind our own meats, we make our own dressings. We use real buttermilk and real mayo to make dressings,” he said. Frisch’s also makes its own pie dough and filling from scratch. “There is no high-fructose corn syrup in our system."

Unlike restaurant chefs, the new items Grisanti cooks don’t get served that day or even that week. Try three months. That’s because new concepts go through rigorous iterations, involving multiple teams from menu innovation, training and operations.

When I caught up with Grisanti, it was at a photo studio in Northside -- a far cry from his test kitchen at the commissary in Walnut Hills. The creative team was doing a photoshoot of Frisch's new menu items.

Frisch's will roll out its new "Diner Classics" menu on Sept. 28. (Provided / Northlich)

Grisanti revealed that he had been working on the next big rollout: Diner Classics. The lineup comprises new Reuben and Rachel sandwiches, a meatloaf sandwich and dinner, and the patty melt. These diner classics will be rolled out on Sept. 28.

“The cover on the next menu is going to be these diner classics,” Grisanti said.

The Reuben will have freshly shaved corned beef, made-from-scratch Thousand Island dressing, melted Swiss cheese and sauerkraut, all on marble rye bread -- and then grilled. The Rachel is simply the turkey counterpart.

The meatloaf sandwich will be served with melted smoked provolone cheese on a brioche bun. Frisch's also will offer a “Mile High” meatloaf sandwich, with double the meat and cheese. The meatloaf dinner will be served with two choices of sides, plus a house-made dinner roll.

The grilled patty melt will have a burger patty, caramelized onions, American and Swiss cheeses, all on house-made whole wheat Texas toast. The patty melt will be offered with the classic 4-ounce as well as the new 5.33-ounce “Primetime” patty called the “Patty Melt Prime.”

With so many restaurants at stake, how does Grisanti come up with the "right" new menu items? Grisanti pays close attention to what’s trending in food and what people are buying, then adapts them to the parameters of Frisch’s brand.

“It starts and ends with the customer,” he said. “We want to make what the customers want.

“Seared sea bass and foie gras … that’s just not going to happen,” he added with a chuckle.

For example, the meatloaf classic falls in line with what Grisanti observed to be the return to comfort food. Then there’s a shareable cookie, which indulges diners' love to share desserts. It'll launch this fall in the Louisville and Columbus markets in two flavors -- chocolate chunk and chocolate chocolate fudge -- and will come topped with ice cream and drizzled with chocolate and caramel sauces. It's enough for two to four people to split.

Grisanti is also considering a customizable mac-and-cheese concept for the future. He envisions customers having their pick of cheeses like asiago and provolone, plus toppings like bacon and brisket, to build their own creation. "Customization is a huge trend for the millennials," he said.

For such a large operation, Frisch's still manages to source fairly locally.

“We’re so old-school that the trends have caught up to us,” Grisanti said. “We’ve always sourced beef from fairly local suppliers -- I'm talking about North Carolina and Texas." Frisch's tomato products come from Indiana and their pumpkins (for fresh pumpkin pie) are grown in Indiana and Illinois, he added.

Although Grisanti sometimes feels the weight of his responsibility, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“If I’m not learning something every day, I’m not (only) standing still, I’m stepping backward,” he said.

Grace Yek writes about food for WCPO Digital. She is a certified chef-de-cuisine with the American Culinary Federation, and a former chemical engineer. Questions or comments? Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.