Cold weather is meant for cozy gatherings – and whether you’re serving guests at a dinner or cocktail party in-house or packing takeout food for a home-based gathering with friends around the television, your selection of dips and spreads can elevate your appetizer menu. In your restaurant, dips served with breads or other starches can encourage accompanying drink orders, boosting your check totals. They can also provide you with an opportunity to test new flavor combinations in a low-risk format. Consider offering a range of tastes, textures and nutritional profiles, from cheesy to hearty to plant-forward.
The winter months are meant for noshing. The cozy nights in, weekends watching sports on TV, and casual gatherings with friends all call for tempting comfort foods across the menu. As the weather cools, how can your menu persuade people to place an order instead of cook? Think tempting appetizers that can be shared, family-style entrées for social gatherings, and multi-course meal bundles that can be ordered for easy weeknight dinners.
As much as food menus have had to transform throughout the pandemic, beverage menus have felt pressure to change too. You may have noticed changes in your customers’ beverage-buying habits in recent months: A downturn in classic coffee purchases from people who would normally stop by on their daily commute to work, or a dip in soft drink sales now that groups who used to order a couple of rounds of drinks over a meal in your dining room are finding their beverages at home. But beverages can still be money makers for restaurants – your menu may just need to shift to accommodate the current environment. First, make it special by offering people something they wouldn’t find at home, from coffees and herbal teas with seasonal flavors, to nutrient-dense smoothies, to fruity kombuchas. If you’re selling meal bundles this winter, don’t forget to build in a special beverage option to complement the flavors in the meal: Suggest a wine for each bundle (and explain why it’s a good fit) or offer a non-alcoholic fizzy drink like a sparkling cider or mocktail to make it more worthwhile for a customer to include beverages in their order. As people continue to work from home, their mid-afternoon breaks have also taken on new importance – and beverages can help there too. Offer a snack/appetizer and beverage pairing as an afternoon pick-me-up: Going out for gourmet hot chocolate and popcorn, a pot of tea and scones, or an Italian coffee and cheese board feels more worthwhile than making a special trip for a latte you can easily prep at home. If you’re known for your specialty cocktails, you can even put together a simple kit to help a customer enjoy a special Zoom happy hour on a Thursday evening.
Is there anything a chickpea cannot do? Use them in their pure form in hummus or blend them with onions, garlic and spices for nutritious plant-based burger patties. They’re even taking the guilt out of pasta dishes: Try chickpea pasta as a high-fiber, high-protein, low-glycemic, gluten-free substitute for the traditional version.
Your menu of appetizers and small plates is an ideal place to test global flavors, experiment with a range of proteins and monitor the response to limited-time offers that have the potential to become menu mainstays. Options like coconut shrimp with tangy tomato dipping sauce are easily shareable and offer up tropical flavor that’s a little sweet, a little savory and very craveable.
At a time when small plates, all-day snacks and off-daypart meals continue to be in demand, your tapas menu can be a great draw. In addition to crowd pleasers like croquettes or potatoes with aioli, try to create some balanced meals in miniature form to elevate your menu. Adding some spice or heat can help too. Options like chicken tapas with sweet potato puree and green chili salsa tick all of the boxes for a satisfying small plate.
Consumers clamor for Swedish meatballs. Just ask IKEA, which recently released their recipe for the iconic dish in light of rave reviews from customers. To add a little comfort to your menu, you can make your own version as a shareable, crowd-pleasing addition to your appetizer or small plate selection.
Looking for a new addition to your entrée menu? Take some cues from popular appetizers. You can piggyback on consumers’ interest in little plates and snackable items – all while working with a foundation that is time-tested and guest-approved. Bruschetta is one example. Reinvent it with added protein and melted mozzarella and you have a new dish that manages to be as accessible as a classic appetizer.
What chef doesn’t want a ready supply of simple, versatile sauces and marinades? Chimichurri sauce can liven up a variety of dishes and, in keeping with its Argentinian roots, is an especially good complement to beef. Serve it atop steak crostini for a colorful, satisfying addition to your selection of small plates or appetizers.
Do your guests have entrée fatigue? Whether it’s about not wanting to commit to an entire dish, the growing power of snacks on the menu, or the desire to sample and share (in person and on social media) many different types of food, the trend of smaller plates doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. There are clear benefits for restaurants. A report for Upserve says small plates can encourage guests to be adventurous, manage their calorie intake (and guilt), enjoy more social time with those sharing plates with them, and photograph the experience for Instagram. On restaurants’ end, small plates can encourage your chef’s creativity and help you generate specials and limited-time offers that generate interest among guests. But they’re not for everyone – smaller restaurants tend to be best suited to them – and offering them can require any restaurant to make adjustments. As a report for Uncorkd says, small plates call for a different kind of service structure, organization and communication than more traditional entrée service requires. Your menu should clarify the size of the plates (and how many items will be included) so a four-top isn’t disappointed when three items arrive on a plate. If an item is meant to be shared, deliver it in shareable form – and ensure tables can be cleared of empty plates promptly so there is room for more. Ensure your servers are clear about how many plates you recommend per guest to provide the satisfaction of a full meal. Speaking of communication, small plates require both flexibility and organization: Your server should understand if a table prefers to receive plates all at once or as soon as they are ready – and also if the kitchen can make that kind of staggering possible – and communicate accordingly.