Trying to push your ingredients a bit farther these days? Whenever you add new items to your menu, consider how parts of each dish could do double – or triple – duty as elements of dishes in other menu categories. Your vegetable soup could elevate the flavor of a pasta sauce. Your black bean salad could be served not only on top of greens, but also as a vegetarian topping on nachos or as a colorful side to your chicken or salmon entrée. Do you have enough workhorse ingredients in your inventory right now?
Not so long ago, plant-based proteins were considered solid supporting players – available as options for vegetarian guests tagging along to restaurants with omnivores but not necessarily tasty enough to be promoted as entrées worth seeking out in their own right. That has changed in a big way. Plant-based proteins have improved in taste and variety, consumers have become more aware of beef’s significant carbon footprint, and operators have struggled to source animal proteins. This has all resulted in plant-based proteins growing in demand for consumers and restaurant operators alike. This year, some restaurant brands aren’t only sourcing plant-based proteins but are also innovating their own varieties and testing them with guests. Chipotle, in particular, recently developed its own vegan chorizo made with peas, chipotle peppers, tomato paste, crushed garlic, Spanish smoked paprika and extra-virgin olive oil. Sean Cash, an economist with the Friedman School of Nutrition Science at Tufts University, told the Washington Post that more restaurant operators are “seeing it as a necessity” to offer plant-based proteins and that these options may help give restaurants a critical bit of extra pull with potential guests. This year, take a closer look at plant-based proteins worthy of occupying the center of the plate – whether as sourced replacements for chicken, beef, pork or seafood, or as combinations you develop in-house. Are there opportunities for you to enhance your selection and offer these proteins as customizable additions or substitutions on standard menu items?
Shortages of to-go packaging rank among the top supply concerns for restaurant operators right now. Prices, accordingly, have increased along with the shortages: A 2021 operator survey by Datassential found that 72 percent of respondents said the price of their takeout packaging had climbed significantly. Adding to the challenge is that some regions are cracking down on the use of packaging materials like Styrofoam, all while consumers are also taking greater notice of restaurant packaging and supporting brands that have managed to find environmentally friendly solutions to the problem. (One case in point: apps like Jybe, which enables consumers to search specifically for restaurants that are making Earth-friendly packaging choices.) Could this year be the year your restaurant gets into reusable packaging options? Increasingly, it’s becoming a feasible alternative for large multinational brands and smaller independents alike. For example, Restaurant Hospitality reports that in addition to Burger King testing reusable Whopper containers and Starbucks testing a cup-rental option, small chains like Tiffin in Philadelphia are offering delivery containers that can be returned to a delivery driver on a subsequent order. Other smaller operators are partnering with the growing number of third-party suppliers offering food and drink containers that can be used, returned and reused.
If you have chicken on your menu, you’ve no doubt become familiar with managing shortages and trying to find suitable substitutes. While it could still be some time before operators can comfortably offer chicken wings, incorporating other parts of the chicken onto the menu can help satisfy guests’ craving for chicken in the meantime. Thighs, for example, are expected to be available in greater supply (and at lower cost) early this year, so consider slicing them up to boost the protein content of wraps, salads and pasta dishes this season.
What’s more versatile than pasta? Treat it as a critical resource in your toolbox at a time when you need to make every item in your inventory count. It can be a tasty side dish when combined with fresh vegetables and a vinaigrette, offered as a craveable appetizer when baked with cheese or elevated to an entrée when paired with seafood. Serve it hot or cold, make it health-conscious or indulgent, and swap in different shapes to instantly kick up the interest of a recipe.
The pandemic has taught restaurants the value of generating new income streams, and virtual brands – which have been on the rise since the pandemic started and are presumed to continue their climb in the future – are an appealing way to do that for many operators. But as restaurants work to capacity to meet demand from their dining rooms and virtual brands amid supply shortages, how can they best keep everything running? At the Restaurant Leadership Conference in December, Wow Bao CEO Geoff Alexander said menu simplification could help. He suggested that while many restaurants slashed their menus early in the pandemic to ease the burden on staff, that approach could now help restaurants free up critical capacity by absorbing the work and production know-how that the discontinued items once required. If you’re looking to create or sustain a virtual brand, take a closer look at your existing menu and look for opportunities to trim and simplify what you offer.
Creating a new menu favorite doesn’t have to be about incorporating the very latest flavor trends. It could be about taking existing menu items and presentations that your guests already find appealing, then translating them into something new. Consider formats like sliders, egg rolls, spring rolls, tacos or burritos – comforting, craveable hand-held foods that can be eaten on the go – and try filling them with new ingredients that surprise.
Covid has changed consumers’ relationship with foods, their ideas about health and their perceptions about what ingredients mean. According to Health & Wellness 2021: Reimagining Well-being Amid COVID-19, a new report from the Hartman Group, health and wellness have become more top-of-mind considerations for a broader set of consumers in the past two years as they have seen first-hand how infectious diseases, immunity, vaccine effectiveness and safety and mental health all play critical roles in their lives. They are now applying that experience to the foods they consume and are approaching menus more mindfully as a result. So what does that mean for restaurant operators? After the greater amount of time consumers have spent cooking meals at home in recent years, expect more scrutiny of ingredients, as well as the pursuit of less-processed, naturally plant-based foods. For example, the report indicates that more indulgent brands that are making wellness claims will need to be able to back them up more precisely – and that more natural presentations of plant-based proteins are likely to emerge as preferred options by health-conscious consumers. If you have a brand that is built around wellness, or if you simply make wellness claims around specific menu items, aim for simpler, unprocessed ingredients and be ready to answer questions about what’s on (and in) the menu.
At a time when staffing shortages require operators to do more work with less people, ready-made and speed-scratch ingredients can be lifesavers. If you have resisted using as many of these prepared items as could benefit your business, consider getting more creative with them. Can you invent a unique appetizer, entrée or dessert by combining the best parts of different prepared items you have on hand?