When inflation is high and consumers are minding their budgets a bit more, they may need some extra incentive to dine out. Your special events and promotions can provide it. Looking at what you do best, as well as entertainment options that could complement it, what event might you create that would draw a crowd? Whether it’s hosting an Oktoberfest celebration, World Cup party or simply developing a menu that relates to a popular community event already in the works, find a vehicle to make the choice to dine away from home an easy one.
Amid high inflation, you’re likely having to make some tough decisions with regard to your menu right now – whether that has involved raising prices, swapping in more economical cuts of meat, shrinking portion sizes, or all of the above. While consumers are noticing the changes, there are some they mind less than others. In a recent Bloomberg report, Nailya Ordabayeva, a marketing professor at Boston College, said size reductions tend to go over better with consumers than price increases. “People tend to underestimate changes in object sizes,” she said. “It’s pretty convenient for companies to actually move size, move around size, more than they do price, because people do notice price changes more.” Since American restaurants have been serving up larger portion sizes for some time, there is room to shrink them – and there are benefits to this. Aside from helping you cut back on waste and better manage your inventory, reducing portion size can also help your kitchen focus more on quality than bulk. What’s more, your kitchen can be more nimble. You will be able to make quick and creative menu adjustments based on what ingredients are available, giving guests a good reason to come back and see what new items you’re offering. To deemphasize the reduction in portion size, serve entrées, sides, beverages and condiments with smaller plates, glasses, ramekins and to-go containers – and plate foods creatively, filling empty space with high-value ingredients wherever you can. Once this inflationary period is behind us, it may make sense to keep these smaller sizes around for the control they are able to give you in the kitchen.
The demand for off-premise restaurant food is going strong – but restaurants are still trying to find their footing when it comes to packaging. Bans of single-use plastic in some cities, along with guest demands for environmentally friendly options, are leading more operators to try compostable containers. But as Los Angeles-based operators have been finding in light of the city’s forthcoming ban on disposable plastics, some of the compostable packaging alternatives can soak up sauces and otherwise alter the taste of a dish. As you consider alternatives to plastic in the packaging you use for catering and takeout, test how the material interacts with (and impacts the quality of) the ingredients you’re packaging.
As current economic conditions make it critical for restaurants to do as much as possible with fewer resources, it can feel like an impossible task to have to innovate. Yet, innovation is a critical reason consumers eat at restaurants: According to Technomic research, consumers order new or unique items from restaurants 25 percent of the time. At a session of the recent National Restaurant Association Show, experts weighed in on how to maximize menu innovation efforts when operators are feeling stretched thin. It comes down to five P’s: pivots, preparation, proteins (and plants), personalization and predictions. Combining existing ingredients in new ways is an easy pivot that can refresh a menu. Your preparation of a dish can also transform it: consider charring or pickling vegetables to inject new flavor into your menu, or freezing a cocktail to give it a slushy texture. As animal proteins have become difficult to source, chefs have had to get creative with new cuts of meat – and also with plant proteins at the center of the plate. Now is an ideal time to experiment with more plant-forward entrées. When a consumer knows they can order something just the way they like it, you can win their loyalty, so consider how you can make your menu feel more personalized by offering a choice of condiments, sides and/or grains. Finally, weave in some of the year’s trend predictions. You can be on-trend but not trendy by taking an ingredient on the rise in menus – even something as simple as a seasoned salt or a spice – and adding it to your food and beverage menu in new ways.
We could all use a little comfort these days – and as comfort foods go, pasta ranks pretty high. But at a time when many consumers are craving foods that soothe but also those that promote better health, restaurant operators need to offer options that that tick both boxes. Pasta made from alternatives to wheat flour – whether chickpeas, quinoa, red lentils or another source – can help. While these pastas are not necessarily low-carb, their elevated protein and fiber content make them reliable options to offer guests who want comfort without the guilt.
Do you have guests who like to know that what they are eating isn’t only good for their health but is also environmentally sustainable? This mindset, which has become more widespread since the start of the pandemic, is likely to expand further as American consumers struggle to manage high inflation. The average American family of four wastes $1,500 of food each year, according to Earth.org, and rising grocery bills make it that much more important to minimize waste. Chefs are in a powerful position to continue to move the needle when it comes to the consumer mindsets and habits that generate food waste. While chefs have long found creative ways to use excess vegetables in soups and other dishes, minimizing waste is now less a case of slipping a less-than-perfect carrot into a stew than actively promoting menu specials because they contain ingredients that might otherwise go to the compost bin. Nation’s Restaurant News reported recently that Michael Guiess, chef at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, developed a pop-up menu feature dubbed the Low-Waste Bowl. The bowl’s ingredients, which change depending on what is available, have included such items as roasted carrots, herb-braised celery and watermelon rind pickles, as well as grains like brown rice or sorghum. The common elements woven through the bowl are that they feature healthy ingredients and cut down on waste. The popular feature has won industry accolades and helped the foodservice operation glorify ingredients that may be slightly past their prime but still have health-preserving (and money-saving) benefits.
Could you turn up the heat on your menu? Your guests’ taste buds may welcome it. As plant-based dishes have grown in demand, spices have become ever-more-important contributors of global flavor. Whether you’re serving up Asian flavors like gochujang, Latin American fare or American-style barbecue, consider giving some kick to your menu by creating spicy variations on a dish.
At a time when it’s important lean into your pantry and stretch your inventory as far as it can go, what can you do to reinvent menu items on the fly? The secret’s in the sauce. A new marinade or dipping sauce can create a new and different experience. As you update your menu, what items could get a new lease on life with a different sauce? From falafel to French fries to focaccia, consider trying new sauces that can upscale a dish, give it some on-trend flavor, or offer a creative twist with minimal labor and added ingredients.
Want to offer new, creative menu items while stretching your inventory? Expand your soup menu. It’s an ideal place to incorporate excess produce you have on hand, test guests’ response to global flavors, and provide options that transition easily from lunch to dinner. Plus, at a time when consumers are eating smaller meals throughout the day and on the go – not necessarily sitting down to a large meal at night – soup can be an ideal choice. Offer a small serving for a snack or mini meal on the go or scale it up and serve it with side dishes for bigger appetites.
Stretching your menu and making it more exciting can be as simple as changing up your presentation. How might you add interest to your appetizer menu by shaking up guests’ expectations about a classic option? Try creating your own spin on sliders, serving wings with a new dipping sauce, or offering spring rolls with spicy Mexican fillings.