Once a culinary afterthought, the left side of the menu, where side items often fall, is uniquely positioned to cater to the continued shift in consumers’ dining behavior toward personalized, memorable occasions that allow for sharing and connecting with others over food.
“We’re seeing the evolution toward grazing throughout the day rather than just eating square meals,” says Deanna Jordan, senior research analyst at Chicago researcher Technomic. “So with how sides can be positioned, these options can appeal for the types of occasions and menus that cater to these dining preferences, such as snacking, happy hours and bar menus.”
A growing force
Starches, such as potatoes and grains, are the largest contributors to the growth of sides, as dishes featuring tater tots, handmade fries and breakfast potatoes are showing up across all dayparts. Operators also are innovating with grains such as quinoa for a healthy spin, according to menu research firm Datassential.
More produce-centric sides are appearing on menus as well, which both appeals to health-conscious eaters and gives operators an easy way to leverage seasonal items—something that a growing number of consumers look for. “Sides associated with terms such as gluten free, local, all natural and organic are gaining traction, too,” says Jana Mann, senior director at Datassential.
An expanded role
Casual-dining concept Hash House a Go Go, with 10 U.S. locations, uses sides to enhance entrees in both flavor profile and consistency. “If you can add a side that complements the entree, adds to its presentation and adds value, then you don’t have to merchandise individual sides as much,” explains Jim Rees, COO and partner.
One popular side, featuring crispy potatoes and corned beef hash, hits all of those notes. The restaurant worked with Reser’s Foodservice to develop a ready-to-cook fresh potato diced with a special blade that creates cuts of varied sizes and shapes. This approach provides an attractive, hand-cut look.
“It’s a fresh product that allows us to execute without any variation throughout our 10 restaurants, and it’s invisible to the guest that it was partially prepared,” says Rees. The potatoes are used in all hash items and egg scrambles, as well as a main item on the chain’s brunch menu.
Mazzio’s Italian Eatery, with locations in 10 states, is well known for its handmade pizzas—but it’s their salad bar that has gained a big following. Because of the salad bar’s consistent, fresh offerings, the salad bar often receives higher ratings than its pizzas.
“Using prepared products on the salad bar is a winning proposition,” says Archie Dixon, manager for supply chain management. “Not only does it save labor time in the kitchen, but it allows for a consistent product based on specification to be menued at all locations.”
Mazzio’s features six Reser’s products on its salad bar: A mustard potato salad, a macaroni salad, an Italian ziti pasta salad and three desserts. “For our guests to give the salad bar such high marks is a result of offering side items that are fresh, high quality and flavorful, which is what Reser’s delivers on a consistent basis,” Dixon says.
Mazzio’s offers the salad bar as a stand-alone item because many people want to make a meal from it rather than order pizza. “Having the extra variety of prepared salads and desserts, as well as vegetables, provides enough ingredients to create a satisfying meal from start to finish,” explains Dixon. “A side dish should not be pigeon holed into an al a carte menu presentation.”
- 53% of consumers overall order sides on all or most restaurant visits—this has held steady since 2013.
- Although 43% of consumers express interest in larger portioned, shareable sides, most sides are still intended for individual consumption.
- Cravings and curiosity are strong drivers of side purchases—46% order sides because they’re craving them and 40% because they want to try a particular side.
- Better value and pricing could encourage side purchases—40% say better value for sides could encourage them to purchase sides more frequently and 36% say the same regarding better variety.
- Operators can pique consumer interest with new, unique and ethnic sides.
- 46% of consumers would like restaurants to offer more sides with new/unique flavors or ingredients
This post is sponsored by Reser's Foodservice