Satisfying consumers’ appetite for menu variety while maintaining razor-thin profit margins is no small feat. For operators, cross-utilizing ingredients across the menu can pay off with streamlined operations, lower labor costs, greater space efficiency—and if done well—a better bottom line.
Cross-utilized products are characteristic of today’s smaller, more efficient restaurants, which are often in the 3,000-4,000 square-foot range—much smaller than those of the past, says John Csukor, CEO of KOR Food Innovation, a culinary innovation and marketing company in Ashland, Va. An operation that builds its menu this way, uses real-time inventory and limits staff overhead can be highly profitable.
“The shrinking restaurant footprint requires really intelligent and strategic cross-utilization of ingredients,” says Csukor. “You just can’t bring in the SKU count that you formerly did in the 25,000-square-foot restaurants of the 1980s and 1990s.”
A fresh ingredient such as curly black kale could be leveraged into a ravioli filling, a composed salad and a braised side dish for short ribs, Csukor says. Some concepts use a signature technique as a siren song for multiple items, such as the barbecue spot that permeates much of its menu with hardwood smoke.
At Shaw’s Crab House, with locations in Chicago and Schaumburg, Ill., all of the seafood on its extensive menus are fully cross-utilized, according to Pete Balodimas, divisional executive chef of Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises.
Take halibut. Shaw’s turns the loin into center-of-the-plate entrees, makes the tails and bellies into fish and chips and fashions the collars into menu specials. The cheeks—as well as fish stock made from the bones and trimmings—go into gumbo or jambalaya. “When we purchase a fish, we literally use 100 percent of it,” says Balodimas.
When it comes to produce, Balodimas can get three different side dishes from a stalk of fresh asparagus. He roasts the spear end of the stalk, steams the middle of the stalk and braises the bottom—which is a little woody but tasty—to make asparagus puree.
Along with grooming the bottom line at Shaw’s, cross utilization keeps menu prices manageable for patrons. “You see a lot of places selling halibut in the upper $40s when it is first in season,” says Balodimas. “They have to charge that, because they’re throwing away 20 percent or 30 percent of the product. But if you do a little more work, you can put a beautiful halibut dish on the menu priced in the mid $30s and use the rest of the fish for other dishes. You’re generating profit and the guest is getting a superior product and not feeling gouged.”
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