Menu shrinkage is out. Customized, labor-saving menu strategies move in

Cross-training, chef-driven speed-scratch ingredients and operational shortcuts help meet back-of-house labor challenges post-pandemic without sacrificing innovation.
labor-saving menu strategies to help the workforce. | Illustration by Marty McCake

Shrinking or streamlining the menu was a popular pandemic solution to handling the labor shortage during the Covid years.

Although back-of-house labor challenges are still with us, slashing the menu no longer cuts it. Customers are fussier about where they spend their dining dollars, and restaurants have to keep the menu fresh and innovative to stay competitive. To make up for understaffed kitchens or under-skilled workers, operators are digging into a mixed bag of strategies, including cross-training, pre-prepped ingredients and equipment upgrades.

“Figure out what customers value and will give you credit for,” said Mike Turner, VP of supply chain for Baton Rouge, La.-based Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux. For this 80-unit casual-dining chain, it’s items like dry-aged steaks hand-cut in house, hand-pattied burgers and freshly grated cheese that make the food special, he said.

“We give a heavy lift to what guests will notice.” — Mike Turner, VP of supply chain for Walk-On's Sports Bistreaux

Proprietary sauces and other ingredients, on the other hand, are prepared at a boutique, third-party commissary in Louisiana and sourced ready-made. Dressings and other condiments are procured from larger supplier partners.

“We give a heavy lift to what guests will notice,” said Turner. 

Dallas, Texas-based Velvet Taco prides itself on doing all its prep and cooking on the premises, but as the 45-unit chain expands out of Texas into areas including Nashville, Atlanta, Charlotte and Florida, it’s becoming harder to find skilled taco makers, said Executive Chef Venecia Willis. “We’re looking into solutions that will assure consistency,” she added.

Velvet Taco queso dip

Velvet Taco brings in 3-pound blocks of “extra melt” cheese product for its signature Red Curry Queso. | Photo courtesy of Kathy Tran

For Velvet Taco’s famous queso, she brings in 3-pound blocks of two cheese products: Extra Melt and Jalapeno Melt. “We shred it in the food processor and use it as a base for our Red Curry Queso and White Queso,” said Willis. Enhancements such as cilantro, chimichurri and spices can be added during cooking.

“We also purchase ‘jaccara’ steak, meaning it’s needled by the supplier to break down the meat fibers so the marinade penetrates better,” she said.  “It’s very hard to teach the staff how to needle and we had inconsistent results before.”

Velvet Taco now offers a core menu of 21 tacos plus the WTF or “Weekly Taco Feature.” In 2023, the chain tested some regional menus and breakfast tacos, but this lineup is their “sweet spot” and allows units to open at 11 a.m. instead of earlier in the morning. Online training modules assure that every location is executing according to spec. “Plus, a back-of-house management system is teaching us more about predictive prep,” said Willis.

Multitaskers as problem-solvers

According to an operator survey by US Foods, culinary expertise and labor are in short supply, with 70% of operators citing labor as their biggest challenge, said Stacey Kinkaid, VP of product development and innovation for the broadline distributor. “Labor-saving products are in high demand, as are versatile products that can be used across the menu. So, once you train a team member on one product or ingredient, you don’t have to retrain.”

US Foods

US Foods’ chefs worked directly with the supplier to perfect an authentic Italian gnocchi. | Photo courtesy of US Foods.

But operators also want products they can pass off as their own, sometimes with small tweaks. US Foods provides all levels of preparation, from raw, precut and marinated Beef Bulgogi that’s cooked into a menu item in a restaurant’s kitchen, to fully cooked smoked beef brisket that just needs reheating. The latter not only addresses the lack of cooking skills in many kitchens, it assures the safe preparation of a protein.

A recent success is an Italian gnocchi that combines versatility with authenticity. US Foods’ chefs worked directly with the supplier at the plant to perfect the filling. “We’re changing the minds of operators on what value-added products can be,” said Kincaid.

Broadliner Sysco also employs chefs who work with suppliers all over the country and the world. These chefs are tasked with developing solutions for operators across all types of restaurants with wide-ranging back-of-house skill sets.

Sysco shrimp

Sysco’s garlic butter-basted butterflied shrimp in the shell elevate many menu applications. | Photo courtesy of Sysco.

“Six, seven years ago, you’d never hear a chef talk about ‘labor savers,’” said Neil Doherty, Sysco’s director of culinary development. “It was always ‘I’ll do that myself; I don’t buy anything that’s pre-prepared.’ It’s totally changed.”

The biggest request by chefs is “I don’t want to change my concept or downgrade what I’m doing,” he added. Doherty and his team look at curating items that help chefs execute the menu without making them feel like they’re doing the same thing as the restaurant down the street.

"We’re changing the minds of operators and chefs on what value-added products can be." — Stacey Kinkaid, VP of product development for US Foods

The most successful labor-saving products are those that aren’t fully fleshed out, allowing operators to add signature touches. A recent example is a large, butterflied shell-on shrimp basted with garlic butter. It comes individually frozen and can be unpackaged and thrown on the grill, flat top or saute pan, then served across the board, in fajitas, surf ‘n turf, seafood platters, a salad or any number of applications. “All the labor is taken out, but the customer would never know,” Doherty said.

Friend of a Farmer, a renowned farm-to-table restaurant with two locations in New York City, has built its reputation on locally sourced ingredients and its chef-driven menu. But to save labor, the kitchen creates its own house-made “value-added products” that can multitask across the menu.

“Everything is made in house or brought in locally, so we incorporate one component of a menu item into at least two or three dishes, which helps significantly with labor and cost,” said co-owner Rose Morabito. “We do this with a lot of our sauces, using them on salads, entrees and appetizers. We definitely have gotten creative, using all the breads in our homemade bread basket for items like the Terry Alan Chicken which is a stuffed chicken over lemon bread, or our ice cream sandwich with banana chocolate chip bread and vanilla ice cream.” 

Cross-training for the win

Back-of-house employees are also multitasking to meet labor challenges. As a small independent restaurant, Friend of a Farmer has a small staff to match, and many team members are trained to take on more than one role.

“We have a great kitchen staff that will work together to prep items and lend a hand to our bakers who make all of the pot pie crusts, homemade breads and desserts,” said Morabito. “When preparing such large quantities daily, it's important we work efficiently but don't sacrifice the quality. During the winter, we prepare up to 60 pot pie crusts daily, so having extra hands is extremely beneficial.”

Fast-casual Brine, a New York City-based chicken-focused concept with two locations, has rejiggered its back-of-house positions to manage high wages and staff shortages. “Workers no longer have one station and one job,” said chef-partner Joseph LoNigro. “Every team member loads and empties the dishwashing machine, for example. If they pass by with a dirty dish, they put it in.”

Instead of hiring a dishwasher, LoNigro created a position called “prep partner.” That employee is responsible for cutting and peeling vegetables and lighter, lower-skilled tasks. More complicated techniques are performed by the prep cooks, and the line cooks put the finishing touches on a dish—seasoning, sauces and assembly/presentation, he said. “The lead prep cook is the most-skilled position,” he added.

The core menu consists of brined, seasoned, fire-grilled chicken with an array of sides, sauces and formats. Guests can also get their chicken in salads, bowls, sandwiches and as tenders. Despite the large and varied scratch-made menu, “we spend a lot of time on simplification of processes and eliminating skills without sacrificing quality,” said LoNigro. That helps Brine attract and retain workers in the competitive fast-casual environment.

Walk-Ons finds that a more formalized approach to cross training works in its favor, said Turner. “Career road mapping is key to our culture and retention,” he said. “We move team members around to train at different stations, and every time they master that particular training, they’re recognized with a star.” Dishwashers are trained to work the prep line and line cooks have the opportunity to move into management, Turner added.

Walk-Ons Hickory Burger

Walk-Ons hand-patties its burgers and hand-cuts steaks, but uses labor-saving sauces and dressings to balance these extra steps. | Photo courtesy of Walk-Ons.

The “career mapping” approach gives casual-dining Walk-Ons a competitive edge over quick-service and fast-casual concepts, where menus are smaller and don’t usually require as much kitchen work. “We offer 60 menu items and everything is plated and presented beautifully,” said Turner.

Equipment and tech shortcuts

Early investments in equipment and technology also helped Walk-Ons meet that level of menu execution. All the recipes are formatted online, each accompanied by a photo, with access through a smart phone. Quarterly workshops are held to focus on specific items and seasonal additions.

The chain also uses software that analyzes the previous six weeks of sales, predicting what the kitchen might have to prep and how much time it will take. All these enhancements help take some pressure off the back-of-house.

For Anthony Head, chef-owner of Chicken Head’s in Dayton, Ohio, the shortest route to meeting the BOH labor challenge was through an investment in new prep and cooking equipment. His chicken-focused menu, similar to Brine’s, demanded several hands-on steps to execute. When Chicken Head’s first opened, Head employed 12 people per shift. 

Chicken Head waffles

Investing in a vacuum marinator and an automatic sifter saved Chicken Head’s countless hours of labor. | Photo courtesy of Chicken Head’s.

To shorten the steps, he first purchased a vacuum marinator, reducing marinating time from 12 hours to 20 minutes. The flat edge of the barrel tenderizes the chicken as it tumbles, and the vacuum removes air so the marinade can penetrate better.

Head also invested in a Breader Blender Sifter—an automatic sifter for the breading that coats fried chicken. That piece of equipment cuts hand-sifting time by about 80%. And the DrumRoll automatic breading machine not only saves time and labor, it promotes consistency.

 “The savings in labor alone paid for the equipment in the first month,” said Head, who now operates the restaurant with just two people a day.

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