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Menus go micro

small plate shareable appetizer restaurant

When it comes to dining out these days, size matters—but not in the way you might think. Small is, well, big, both in terms of what’s on the plates and the menus themselves.

Keeping up with the demands of your customers, however, involves more than just making portions smaller or minimizing your menu. In order to succeed with smaller menus and flexible portion sizes, operators need to put a lot of thought into deliberately menuing dishes that make sense for their competitive positioning.

“On the whole, people have higher expectations and are looking for an eating experience with an awareness of calories,” says Martin Paine, executive chef for St. Louis-based Kent Precision Foods, adding that value for money is also a priority. “The consumer is no longer looking for a quick way to fill up, but is instead looking for an enjoyable eating experience that would be found in an a la carte-style menu.”

Small plates, big opportunity

The small-plates trend started in in the early 2000s as an outgrowth of Spanish-style tapas dining, according to Jack Li, managing director of Chicago-based Datassential, a leading food insights agency.

To say the trend has grown considerably since then would be an understatement: Bite-sized desserts began popping up in 2004 in response to diners expressing that they were too full to indulge. And, not too long after that, the small-plate trend expanded its borders beyond Spain to incorporate other bold, ethnic flavors.

“It was no longer about traditional tapas, but more about ‘small plates’ in general, and covering cuisines from around the world,” says Li. “Small plates are a great platform for innovation and experimentation.”

While most operators are likely familiar with small plates, a renewed focus on these types of dishes can still pay off. Flexible, shareable portions lend themselves to social dining and flavor risks, which can spell opportunity. “Small-plate offerings allow the consumer the ability to experience new tastes and flavors without indulging in a traditional full meal,” says Paine. The key to success, then, is offering on-trend, flavor-forward dishes; since there’s just a few bites of each dish, taste is paramount.

Trimming menus, gaining focus

Downsizing doesn’t just apply to what’s on the plates, though. Menus in general have been getting smaller, too, taking inspiration from red-hot fast-casual concepts such as Chipotle. This is true across all segments: Earlier this year, McDonald’s announced that it would trim its menus and use fewer ingredients.

According to Li, the push for smaller menus is the result of two separate trends, both of which emerged in 2008-2009. At that time, in reaction to the recession, many operators returned to a core menu that enabled them to buy fewer items, he says, and thus reduce their waste.

But more importantly, this coincided with the rise of three key segments, according to Li: fast-casual, food trucks and chef-casual restaurants. Chef-casual, coined by Datassential in 2007, refers to chef-driven restaurants that are not fine dining, such as Rick Bayless’ Tortas Frontera or Bobby Flay’s Burger Palace.

These concepts, along with fast casual restaurants such as Chipotle and Panera, all zeroed in on a singular concept and focused on delivering that concept flawlessly. This approach resonated with consumers and caused them to make a connection between small, focused menus and high-quality experiences.

“Whether it’s a fast-casual place that specializes in waffle sandwiches or an upscale casual restaurant that prints everything on a single-page menu, the thinking today is that ‘smaller is better,’” says Li. “That level of focus says ‘quality’ to [consumers].”

For Paine, success with menu downsizing is a matter of operators being confident in and focusing on what they’re good at. “The food truck business is a good example of building a core menu and sticking to it,” he says.

But as with small plates, having flavor additions that are versatile is crucial, especially since a smaller number of menu items means fewer opportunities to make an impact. “If we start with less-processed products and then offer choices of topical seasonings and flavorful accompaniments, that allows the consumer the opportunity to customize their eating experience,” says Paine.

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This post is sponsored by Mrs. Dash Foodservice

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