Elevating your menu items doesn’t require complex combinations of ingredients. The addition of a single premium ingredient can transform an ordinary appetizer into something memorable or justify a higher price point for an entrée. In fact, making these small enhancements to your menu is an easy way to help you make a popular item that much more profitable – and allow it to earn its place on your menu.
The National Restaurant Association recently published its annual What’s Hot forecast for the coming year, highlighting the ingredients and approaches it expects to see in the industry in 2023. Included in these trends is an anticipated continuation of the blending of dayparts as consumers spend more time working from home or from places other than the office and eating at odd hours as a result. So in addition to regular mealtimes, the in-between times – happy hour or snack times, for example – continue to be important to attracting guests. Restaurants that may have played down those times of the day before may now be looking for menu options to lift business during those periods, not to mention staff to cover the orders that come in. At the same time, however, one of the top three macro trends in the 2023 forecast was menu streamlining. More than before, restaurants face having to do more with less when it comes to the ingredients they weave into the menu. An ingredient must work hard – not simply as a featured player in an entrée, but also as a supporting player in several other dishes in different menu categories. Yet those dishes must be different enough to make the menu sufficiently interesting to guests that they are motivated to order from restaurants at a time when their money isn’t going as far. Restaurant operators are doing a delicate dance right now to find the right mix of dishes on their menu. The ingredients that can elevate a dish – but also disappear into it by becoming something new when combined with different spices, sauces and textures – can help operators spread their inventory as far as it needs to go right now.
Simple ingredients can step it up
In recent months, you’ve likely had to adapt to an ever-shifting array of ingredients. Your favorite brands or even broad categories of items may be inaccessible due to escalating prices and supply chain problems. So what can you do to maximize what you do have? Channel the creativity you would lend to the finishing touches of a dish and consider the potential of your pantry. What simple, readily available ingredients can you transform with different preparation methods into something exciting, unexpected and different from what your guests are apt to prepare for themselves at home?
Make it memorable
As energy and food costs have spiked for consumers and restaurant operators alike, it’s only natural to want to rein in spending. Restaurant operators may need to offer a little something extra to incentivize guests to place an order. While this doesn’t require extravagant ingredients – operators are pinching pennies too, after all – it does require some creativity and an interest in offering something that is difficult to find elsewhere and unlikely to be prepared at home. Looking at your menu, where can you elevate the experience you offer by injecting a little comfort, nostalgia or intrigue?
Train your menu understudies
Some ingredients simply gain a cult following. That has been the case with avocados in recent years, whether as part of the internet sensation they created when spread on toast or simply as a salad topper, smoothie ingredient or guacamole base. But in a period when near-constant climate challenges, inflation and supply chain woes are impacting so many ingredients at once, avocados are one of many ingredients to carry an increasingly out-of-reach price tag these days. The U.S Department of Agriculture said average avocado prices spiked 30 percent in late July over the same period last year. They are just one example of how operators can’t rest on their laurels when it comes to menu engineering and menu planning in general. Each item on your menu should be popular and profitable. If you’re not ready to take a popular item off the menu, consider how you can offer it at a higher price point or with more economical ingredients. Being known for a signature item can be a blessing in good times and a curse in others — consider the brand challenges of Wingstop when chicken wings suddenly became scarce. It’s crucial to keep testing new ideas so that when one popular ingredient is unavailable, you have a couple of understudy dishes ready in the wings. Offer them as limited-time specials or in VIP test tastings for your best guests so you’re regularly collecting data on what’s working, what’s not and what substitutes can be swapped in with the greatest acceptance from guests. Who knows? You may accidentally create the next avocado toast for your guests.
Pasta that packs a nutritional punch
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.
Put your ingredients to work
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?
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.
Menus to reflect the times
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.
Prepared foods, reinvented
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?
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