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7 recession-busting menus

Can that simple piece of paper help fight a nasty economy? These folks are betting on it.

Claim Jumper

Recession protection: Add cheaper dishes disguised as on-trend healthy and small-plate items

How to recession-proof the menu without giving customers the impression they’re simply getting less food for less money? That was the challenge facing Claim Jumper, a company that made its name with gut-busting portions like the Chocolate Motherlode Cake.

“It’s a tough line to tread,” says John Merlino, corporate executive chef and R&D director of the 45-unit midprice chain.

“We don’t want to come off as just protecting against tough economic times. But the fact is, we’re always affected by something, whether it’s availability of ingredients or the weather.

The solution Merlino and his team came up with was to wrap their economically driven menu changes in the customer-friendly trends of healthy dining and small portions. That’s where the 650-calorie Healthier Choices menu section comes in, as well as a bar menu with many items in the $3 to $4 range. Each added value and a lower price point in the guise of variety and something a little less filling.

As for the 650-calorie marker, Merlino credits the incorporation of “lots of flavor, color and texture” as being the secret to success. Take the lemon and toasted garlic citrus salad. It’s built on an apple and golden raisin slaw (with crispy Napa cabbage, green onions, flavorful Pippin apples and cilantro) in a creamy sweet-and-sour onion-lemon dressing, topped with sauteed scallops in a cranberry chile vinaigrette.

As for Claim Jumper’s new and improved bar menu, Merlino and his team have essentially created a new category of $3 to $4 small plates that have ended up being sold in multiples—with drinks on top—for an average check of $30 in the bar. The on-trend but low-cost items include meatball sliders steak skewers and more.

Kabuki

Recession protection: Add high-impact items that draw customers and distract from higher prices elsewhere on the menu

The Kabuki location in Pasadena had a few challenges: surrounded by competition and carrying the label of a high-end sushi bar, with its implications of premium prices and petite servings, was not a great situation heading into rough economic times. So why is the restaurant so crowded?

Kabuki director of marketing Young Kim credits an ever-expanding menu of non-sushi specialties that give customers a reason to come to the 12-unit, Southern California-based chain. “We need to create something different, something that no other Japanese restaurants have,” says Kim.

In fact, items from the kitchen, rather than the sushi bar—such as organic tofu, sauteed shishito peppers, mozzarella tempura—now comprise some 60 percent of sales at Kabuki.

This not only helps to ensure repeat business as well as appealing to non-sushi eaters, but it also helps shield Kabuki against a reputation for being simply a sushi bar. “With more than 200 menu items, we really have something for everyone,” notes Kim.

Most interesting, perhaps, is the fact that Kabuki actually took an increase in some menu prices when it added the most recent round of new menu items—and hardly anyone noticed. 

American Roadside Burgers

Recession protection: Build your concept and leverage relationships from the start with lower price points in mind

The entire concept speaks to the  economy and to creating value for customers,” says John J. Tunney III, owner of American Roadside Burger in Smithtown, New York. Great quality and reasonable prices are the backbone of the concept, creating an experience that even wallet watchers can feel good about.

The burgers, ground fresh daily, start at $3.22 for a basic half-pound burger and $3.52 for a cheeseburger. All toppings—such as freshly roasted jalapenos, sauteed mushrooms and onions, handcut lettuce and tomatoes, even bacon—are free.

The quick service concept also features handcut fries and housemade cole slaw (served in old-style paper boats), hot dogs, salads, chicken sandwiches, grilled cheese and a BLT, all averaging $3 to $4. “We wanted to create a value-priced menu that would entice anyone to pull over and go there,” explains Tunney. “But when you have such an all-American concept, you set up an expectation for good, wholesome fresh quality.”

Tunney prepared for that by working his relationships with purveyors, calling upon trusted partners—he’s operated three American Burger Company units on Long Island, which have since been converted to American Roadside, for years—and by letting them know in no uncertain terms that they were getting in on the ground floor of a growing company.

He’s also careful to hold the line on prices. “When my beef purveyor told me he’d have to charge me more because of rising gas prices, I told him I’d absorb the increase, rather than pass it along. We’re fortunate to have had very good acceptance of the American Roadside concept and the menu price is a big part of that.”

Wienerschnitzel

Recession protection: Balance less profitability with increased traffic

Lots of fast food joints have value-priced combo meals. Wienerschnitzel does that, too, with a 99-cent and up value menu, but the hot dog chain is also doing the competition one better with a rolling menu of special offers designed to really appeal to penny pinchers. The latest is Five for $5, five Original Chili Dogs for a reduced price (they usually go for $1.35 apiece).

Although the deal may be a little less profitable for the company, it brings in new and additional customers—particularly younger consumers who may not have been familiar with the 47-year-old hot doggery—builds repeat business, and helps create “craveability” for Wienerschnitzel’s signature item. Sales of beverages and add-ons help boost the total buy.

The Five for $5, which ran earlier this year, followed a similar Four for $4 mix-and-match LTO, but has been so successful that marketing VP Tom Amberger says it will probably be continued as a secondary promotion indefinitely. “We’ve noticed that a lot of people will eat two in the restaurant, and wrap up the remaining three to take home,” he says. “We didn’t really expect that, but it speaks to the tremendous value we’re offering.

Next up, an Italian sausage LTO, but any promotion that is particularly popular generally ends up sticking around as an unadvertised special. “Since we base these on existing menu items, rather than specials, there’s no reason not to continue offering it, if that’s what people want,” Amberger says.

Maine Maid

Recession protection:More menus catering to different dayparts give patrons more points of entry

When Payal and Rajiv Sharma bought The Maine Maid Inn in Jericho, New York, a year ago, they took over a landmark historic inn and restaurant, the 1789, which had come to have a lot more potential than its dated, overpriced menu could deliver. An array of different menus geared to different dayparts, nights and dining experiences—and aimed at bringing in new customers and creating repeat business—seemed to be the solution.

And so the couple set to work, relying on their experience operating the successful Indian restaurant Sitar in Huntington, and on a carefully studied sense of what the suburban location and traditional American needed in order to grow during tough economic times.

Out with the staid, overpriced and limited $24 prix fixe lunch menu, replaced by a larger selection of more contemporary $8 salads, $9 sandwiches and pizzas, and $11 entrees, plus a $17 prix fixe for diehards that offers a great deal more variety.

Hello to new catering menus offering occasion-appropriate prix-fixe selections starting at $22 per person. In with happy hour Bar Bites that do away with costly $16 shrimp salads and cumbersome bowls of soup, in favor of convenient, $6 to $10 finger foods and sandwiches.

Previously slow Monday nights are popular again with a three-course, $12 per person Pasta Night. Tuesdays will see Customer Appreciation Night, with 50 percent off all bottles of wine. Special events like Mediterranean wine dinners are on the calendar. And the dinner menu has been redesigned, with more contemporary choices (Flat Iron Steak, Aleppo Crusted Tuna, Wild Mushroom Ravioli) and the option of a create-your-own three-course prix fixe for $10 extra .

Lunch counts are up, from four to 10 covers when the Sharmas stepped in, to more than 50 or 60 on a Thursday or Friday, while dinner counts have tripled. Catering now accounts for a whopping 70 percent of total sales. Younger diners are attracted to the lower prices, and they’re also coming in more often. Liquor and wine sales are up because customers are spending less on food.

Red Rock Bistro

Recession protection: Add variety to your existing menu by giving customers more control over selections 

In the last six months, we’ve literally had thousands of new restaurant seats open in this market, from Cheesecake Factory to dozens of smaller independents,” says Paul Petersiel. “I’d be worried about it even if there wasn’t a recessionary mindset out there.

That’s part of the reason the owner of the nine-year-old Red Rock Bistro in suburban Swampscott, Massachusetts, recently consolidated half a dozen separate menus into one easy-to-manage four-pager that also offers enough choice to satisfy a wide range of customers. There’s a raw bar section and a selection of woodfired pizzas, lunch- and late-night-friendly salads and sandwiches, brunch at lunch selections like omelets and a kids-eat-free feature on Sundays through Wednesday nights.

The latest wrinkle is a new mix-and-match feature that allows customers to select a popular entree such as pan-seared salmon or scallops or a sirloin steak, with a choice of two side orders from an 18-item assortment that ranges from leek and parsnip gratin and roasted cauliflower french fries and onion strings. “It’s been tremendously successful,” says Petersiel. “About 30 percent of our customers now order from it.

From the start of these new initiatives, Petersiel’s mission has been simple: “What can we do to make it more comfortable and pleasant to be here?” he asks. “The more we can do to make it user-friendly, the better. Getting everything in one place [on the single menu] has definitely helped.” That and continuing to offer variety and flexibility, as well as a fair price.

The kids-eat-free program, started last year, has been a goldmine. One child eats free with each adult after 5 pm Sunday through Wednesday, and mom and dad enjoy a night out with an add-on glass of wine or two, on typically slow nights.

“We didn’t really add or get rid of any items, and we didn’t change the prices when we did this,” Petersiel adds. “We just redeployed the same items and changed how we presented them. It’s about finding untapped resources in your menu.”

Rockin Baja Coastal Cantina

Recession protection: Introduce lower-priced niche items, raise some prices in the meantime and ditch items that don’t cross utilize.

Rockin’ Baja Coastal Cantina has always been known for its unique niche menu items, specifically the signature Baja Buckets: spice-rubbed lobster, flash-fried in the shell, along with other seafood, served in an oversized tin pail.

Founder and CEO Rick DiRienzo developed the concept (known as Rockin' Baja Lobster until last April) to recreate the lobster dinners he enjoyed in the 1960s, then grew it to four company-owned, Southern California locations plus franchises in two other markets.

Trouble is, since 1983 the experience has evolved from a cult dinner-on-the-cheap, into a bell ringer meal running $18 to $24 a person just for the entree.

Enter a line of Outrageous Tacos, introduced this winter, which attract not only lunchtime diners but also anyone who wants a less-expensive and time-consuming menu option. Priced at $10-$13, the line of tacos are filled with everything from fried or grilled mahi-mahi, shrimp and lobster to carnitas and carne asada. The tacos have “taken off like crazy,” says director of operations Bryce Shepherd, without compromising sales of the buckets and other specialties.

“Over the years, we’d built a great business with the buckets, as well as platters, fajita skillets and other unique dinner items,” explains Shepherd. “But we hadn’t been taking advantage of the person who wants to eat in that $10 to $12 price range.

At the same time the Outrageous Tacos were introduced, the rest of the Rockin’ Baja Lobster was retooled, and prices of many items were increased under cover of the newsworthy new category, in order to cover the cost of slipper lobster and other escalating costs. The menu itself was also streamlined to do away with “dead-end product”—ingredients that are only used in one or two menu items—lowering costs two to three percentage points in the process.

Customers, says DiRienzo, never even noticed. Now the tacos, by virtue of being unique niche items in keeping with the rest of the menu, now constitute some 35 percent of sales on an all-day basis, yet average checks have been very little affected, and there’s been a significant uptick in sales, indicating minimal cannibalization.

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