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Operators drive profits by spotlighting side dishes

As protein prices for center-of-the-plate items climb, side dishes are getting more play from menu developers. Potatoes, vegetables and other sides not only moderate food costs, they can help upsell an entree. Chicago research firm Technomic reports that 36 percent of consumers often choose entrees based on the accompanying sides. And sides adapt easily to today’s trends of seasonality and shareability, making them cost-effective and appealing for guests to order and chefs to create.

Sides play a central role at Barleymash, an independent in San Diego serving “progressive bar fare,” says chef Kevin Templeton. There are six kinds of Iron Fries—homemade fries with a three-cheese blend—and seven Barleymacs, Templeton’s take on mac ’n cheese. With an average price of $12, these sides are usually ordered to share, doubling as starters and boosting the check. Other sides, such as a seasonal sweet potato and yam gratin and a bacon-potato cake, are included in the price of an entrée.

“Strategic crossutilization helps lower the food costs of our sides,” says Templeton. The potato cake, which also can be ordered a la carte for $5, is one example. The chef mixes mashed potatoes left over from the night before with green onions and bacon, and forms them  into eight-ounce patties; then he coats them with breadcrumbs and fries them. “We even use short rib drippings to  cook our fries,” he adds.

“I’ve seen that people are getting more adventurous with sides, even in a steak house setting,” says Nate Henssler, chef for the three locations of Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab in Washington, D.C., Las Vegas and Chicago. To attract those diners, Henssler offers a seasonally changing market card of sides. His crispy Brussels sprouts with fried lemons and date vinegar sold 60 orders a day this fall; another popular item is roasted cauliflower with sage brown butter and caramelized shallots. Lighter eaters, including females, gravitate towards these dishes, he says, especially since they’re suitable for sharing.

Diners who come to Joe’s expecting classic steak house sides will find them on the menu year round. These include the signature hash browns as well as standard baked potatoes and sweet potatoes, tweaked with the chef’s personal touches. To upsell these items, the baked potato comes with a roasted-onion sour cream dip and the sweet potato is topped with praline-pecan butter. All Joe’s sides are priced a la carte at $7.95 and $8.95.

Variety spurs sales of sides at the 36-unit Firebirds based in Charlotte, N.C. The regular menu lists 12 choices, and a changing roster of seasonal sides adds to the mix. “Every sandwich and entree comes with a side, offering guests good value,” says Steve Sturm, Firebirds’ corporate executive chef. The average dinner check at this polished-casual chain is $35.

Guests also can order sides at Firebirds a la carte for $5.50 to $6. And, says Sturm, “I’ve noticed lately that customers are ordering two or three to create their own vegetarian meal.” What sells, he says, “are unique preparations that are not too far off the beaten path but have a little twist.” Among the favorites: Pan-Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Butternut Squash, Green Chile Mac & Cheese, Port Mushrooms and Firebirds’ loaded baked potato.

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