Ever notice how trends seem to run in circles? Hemlines rise and fall. Disco music made a comeback. Even the VW Bug is back. A menu trend that's currently in vogue — did it really ever leave? — is side dishes.
In the early days, a la carte side dishes were the standard. They helped restaurant guests build a meal to their satisfaction, based on taste, budget, and time available for dining. Today, side dishes are back, due in part to our hunger for variety and unique dining experiences. Side dishes offer great benefits to operators, too.
Ethnic cuisines from all corners of the globe have become mainstream. In almost any city you'll find Thai, Greek, Spanish, Mediterranean, and endless fusion combinations. Traditional steakhouses, seafood and good old heartland cuisine are also prevalent. In other words, we can have it all, and the result is a population of fickle tastebuds. Side dishes allow diners to experience several flavor and texture combinations in one meal, at an affordable price.
After work and home, restaurants are America's most significant lifestyle choice. Generation X has made dining out a part of their daily routine. Friends, family and associates meet after work to chat and share a bite to eat. Side dishes make it easy to enhance the "social" part of the experience with items that are easy to share.
For the operator, side dishes make excellent economic sense. They're a great way to increase your average check from $1.00 to $4.50, and you can enhance your value perception by keeping entree prices a bit lower, making up for it by selling side dishes.
Side dishes have great profit potential, too. An example might be a side of Creamed Corn Parmesan. A #10 can of sweet corn, some cream and spices, a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese, and 10 seconds in the cheese melter is all it takes. It's fabulous side dish that costs a mere 57¢ and sells for $1.95. And with some advance prep work and ready-made convenience foods, there is little impact on the line or your labor cost.
Side dishes can be a great marketing tool. Take a bit of time to research available menu options and unique recipes (your distributor sales rep can be a great resource). Try out several new sides, get opinions from your staff, and give a few a trial run on your menu.
Want some ideas? Check out side dishes that other operators have successfully, and profitably, made part of their menu.