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Appetizers heat up the menu

Call them starters, small plates, bar food or even tapas—appetizers are seeing a lot of action. And it’s not all that surprising. Today’s thriftier restaurant customer wants to explore exciting flavors and ingredients without spending a fortune. Appetizers have a lot going for them:

  • Freedom to experiment for both kitchen and guest
  • Lower price point
  • Longer daypart—from happy hour through dinner into late-night
  • Shareability = socialization
  • Power to boost beverage sales

Scaled down with a spin 

Tommy Bahama, the 13-unit tropical-themed concept based in Seattle, has always had an extensive appetizer list. But when the recession set in three years ago, Director of Culinary Don Donley came up with a new game plan. He developed an all-appetizer menu for happy hour, calling it “Island Time.” “It was one of the best things we ever did,” he reports. “The small plates—priced at $5 to $8 each—took off.”

For the first Island Time promotion, Donley downsized some appetizers that were running on the regular dinner menu into smaller portions. “We wanted to be sure the kitchen could execute the items before we committed to something totally new,” he says. It went so well that now the roster boasts eight new items not on Tommy Bahama’s regular menu.

The latest apps embrace street food, tacos and ceviche—all trends Donley’s watching evolve. His Ahi Tuna Tacos with wasabi avocado cream have skyrocketed to number one in orders. For the new Lobster Corn Dogs and Chicken Lollipops, Donley upscaled two bar food favorites—corn dogs and wings—with pumped-up flavors, techniques and presentation.

“Our R&D goal is to develop ‘conversation food’—familiar appetizers that we give a bit of a spin. Fun, shareable food creates a high energy level,” says Donley.

All tapas all the time 

American restaurants have broadened the meaning of tapas to include small plates and appetizers of all cuisines. But authentic tapas are rooted in Spain and Portugal—a legacy that shines through in the menu of Bellota at 42 in White Plains, New York. Chef-owner Anthony Goncalves converted a portion of his high-end restaurant into a hip lounge and dining space to attract customers looking for less formality at a lower price point. An all-tapas menu was the perfect match—especially since Goncalves is of Portuguese heritage.

Although the customer check at Bellota is smaller, the large tapas selection ($4 to $16 a plate) is elevated by fresh, seasonal ingredients, topnotch imported products and cutting-edge techniques.

“Tapas push me as a chef and allow me to experiment with a lot of products, resulting in an interesting mix of comfort and creativity,” says Goncalves. On the “comfort” side are bar staples like rosy slices of Iberico ham, crispy fried artichokes, grilled shrimp in piri piri sauce, asparagus a la plancha, salt cod fritters and blistered roasted peppers. “These can never leave the menu,” he claims.

The “creative” tapas showcase the chef’s talents with molecular gastronomy, such as the deconstructed Torta Espanola. It has all the components of a traditional torta—potatoes, onions, red pepper, cheese, eggs—but instead of a frittata format, they are presented as potato foam, caramelized onion, beads of red pepper gelee, dehydrated manchego cheese and a poached egg, all enveloped in subtle juniper smoke.

“I wanted to serve a ‘successful’ torta that tasted fresh and warm,” explains Goncalves. “Besides, this adds a bit of theater—a party atmosphere—and that’s what customers want with tapas.”

Value-added sourcing

Restaurants often cross-utilize ingredients from other parts of the menu to create appetizers. Flatbreads are a prime example, points out Kathy Hayden, foodservice analyst with Mintel Menu Insights. “They’re an easy way to repurpose pizza for the appetizer menu,” she says. Items like onion rings, crab cakes, wings or shrimp can double as appetizers by adding a dip.

But as “the left side of the menu” grows in importance and size, appetizers are growing in scope and originality. Among other suppliers, McCain has jumped in with a new line of globally inspired products called Taste Travelers. The Steak Mini Chimis, Pork & Queso Triangles and Cheese & Italian Sausage Mini Bread Rounds all offer flavor exploration in a familiar format.

At High Rocks Restaurant and Lounge in Gladstone, Oregon, the Steak Mini Chimis were menued as an appetizer LTO with a salsa-sour cream dip. “This was by far the most exciting and successful of any new appetizers I’ve put on the menu,” reports owner Jeff Hermens. High Rocks always offers about a dozen appetizers, including nachos, chicken drumettes and breaded steak bites. These hand-rolled mini chimichangas, filled with braised steak in a chimichurri sauce, black beans and whole hominy, fit right in.

In addition to a mix of familiarity and adventure, operators are looking for appetizers that are easy to execute without a lot of back-of-house training, McCain discovered in its research.

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