(Sept. 3) No. 8 on the National Restaurant Association’s list of hottest trends for the year, small plates such as tapas, mezze and dim sum have proven to have big sales potential. It’s because they work on a number of levels: They fit perfectly into today’s casual, fun style of dining built around sampling and sharing; they cater to diners seeking smaller portions for diet and nutrition reasons; and, from a pricing standpoint, they offer customers who might otherwise stay home some attractive lower priced menu options.
While some operations build their entire concept around specialty tapas, mezze and dim sum, the small plates trend is right for any style of operation and at any price point. And the opportunity isn’t limited to ethnic themes. Traditional entrees and salads can be downsized into “small plates” or half portions. And the idea can easily be applied to appetizer menus. Promoting appetizer sampler platters, offering special pricing on “bundles” of two or three appetizers, and/or menuing appetizers in multiple portion sizes makes it easy to cross merchandise existing items to help build traffic and add-on sales.
Casual dining chains have grabbed onto the trend. For example:
- At TGI Friday’s, the appetizer menu includes "Friday’s Pick Three For All” a platter of "faves" that's big enough to share. Guests customize their platter, picking three selections from among seven regular appetizers.
- Applebee's appetizer menu includes a section called "Ultimate Trios," which features "Trio-sized" portions of three appetizers bundled into a single menu item. Rather than confine guests to a set assortment, guests are free to pick and choose what they want from among eight Trio appetizer selections.
- Chili's starter menu includes Triple Dippers. Guests choose three from among Big Mouth Bites, Chicken Crisper Bites, Buffalo Chicken Crisper Bites, Sweet Chile Glazed Wings, Southwestern Eggrolls, Boneless Buffalo Wings, Wings Over Buffalo, Chicken Crispers, and Hot Spinach & Artichoke Dip. The platter comes with three dipping sauces.
- The Cheesecake Factory has a "Small Plates & Snacks" section, where customers find downsized portions of traditional selections like fried zucchini and onion rings, as well as more upscale choices such as ahi tartare, shrimp scampi crostini and crispy artichoke hearts.
Chains may be leading the trend, but it's one that street accounts can easily pick up on and that DSRs can help with. It can be as easy as offering multiple portion sizes of existing appetizers.
McCain Foods recently field-tested an idea for half-portion, half-price appetizer promotions in independent restaurants from New Jersey to California, Idaho and Illinois. Without exception, the operators participating in the pilot test saw appetizer sales increase significantly without cannibalizing other sales.
Tommy Hatzinas, manager of Yetter's Diner in Augusta, New Jersey, said that while appetizer sales had been falling off due to the recession, adding the half-price options bolstered the category. "We effectively doubled our appetizer sales during the test period," he said. "Customers liked the smaller portions. They were much more apt to order an appetizer or even two without having to worry about getting too much food or making the check too high. People who still wanted full orders of appetizers still ordered them, but more people added on a half."
In Serena, Illinois, Janice Richmond, owner of the 35-seat Serena Café, participated in the test, as well. She saw a 75 percent increase in appetizer sales, with much of the increase coming at lunch, when appetizers typically aren't ordered. "Full orders are too much food with a sandwich," she said. "We were getting 10 to 12 orders a day at lunch for half portions."
Take a look at customers' menus and work up a few suggestions for how they might downsize and/or bundle some items to tap the small plates trend. Be ready to present pricing and cost models, as well as to offer merchandising, plating and staff training suggestions to help ensure smooth, successful implementation both in the back of the house and the front.