At restaurants today, menus are still getting smaller. The casualization of dining, a sharing mentality and a demand for a variety of dining choices have pushed many operators to turn away from more formal, traditional concepts and embrace eclectic small plate and shareable menus.
Although this trend has been gaining steam for the last several years, small plates still spell opportunity for operators:
- The National Restaurant Association’s What’s Hot 2016 Culinary Forecast listed small-plate menus and restaurant concepts as one of the top five new top trends in 2016.
- According to a 2015 report from Technomic, 30 percent of consumers say they order small plates on all or most restaurant visits.
- Thirty-eight percent of consumers believe small plates are a better value compared to single entrees, and 33 percent of consumers believe that small plates offer a better variety.
Small plates, appetizers and shareables also provide a low-risk way for customers to experiment with new flavors or less-familiar ingredients. So what’s the best way to menu a new small-plate offering or reimagine an existing entree into a smaller portion?
Play with ingredients and flavors
When creating small plates, make the main ingredient of each dish the star attraction. Each item should also be visually appealing, and offering dishes with a variety of ingredients, such as vegetables, fish, pasta or protein, that appeal to all eaters can make small plates ideal for a variety of occasions.
Small plates are also an ideal format for operators to experiment with on-trend ingredients. One of the hottest small plates flying out of restaurant kitchens is artisan toast with gourmet toppings and spreads. Chefs have the freedom to combine ingredients to create different spreads and toppings that can change daily based on what’s in the pantry or what’s in season. Cross-utilizing ingredients in this way can make small plates more profitable, even if the main ingredients are premium.
Marc Zimmerman, executive chef at Alexander’s Steakhouse, San Francisco, charges $9/slice for uni toast, housemade brioche toasted in marrow fat and topped with Thousand Island dressing. The toast is then layered with smoked and braised oxtail, fresh uni and green onion. “I’m using primarily Hokkaido uni, which has narrowed my margin a bit, but costs are still in the 30-35 percent range,” he says.
Transform existing menu items into new formats
Operators can also take a few signature entrees and scale them down into small plates. This allows customers to more easily try several of a concept’s bestsellers, and offers guests a more casual, social dining experience.
In January, Carrabba’s Italian Grill launched an updated menu with a fresh, contemporary take on Italian cuisine all made from scratch. Six items are small plates designed to address the shareable, social way of eating—either enjoyed as an appetizer or multiple plates combined—priced for less than $6 and under 600 calories.
Similarly, The East Back Club in Chicago allows guests to select any three small plates for just $26 every Wednesday evening. This strategy drives business on weeknights and puts small plates front and center on the concept’s menu.
Move small plates into the spotlight
While many operators now offer at least a few small-plate options on menus, several concepts have gone all in, offering unique small-plate tasting menus for an elevated experience.
Mercat a la Planxa, a tapas-bar concept in Chicago, offers two individual small-plate tasting menus. The La Mesa de Jose, which makes up 50 percent of reservations, comes in three courses. Guests start with charcuterie, cheese and a salad. Those courses are followed by more traditional items such as garlic shrimp; bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with almonds and octopus with confit potatoes and smoked paprika. The menu finishes with meats such as bass, chorizo and black angus rib eye cooked a la planxa.
The restaurant also offers Degustacion de Lujo—a luxury small-plate tasting menu made with high-end items such as sushi grade tuna, wagyu beef or specialty razor clams.
With more consumers ordering small plates on all or most restaurant visits, now is the time to evolve your shareables menu. Meet consumers’ demand with a menu full of inspired small plates and shareables from McCain®.
This post is sponsored by McCain® Foodservice