May 14, 2018
Small Plates Can Make a Big Impact to Your Bottom Line
from Chef Michael Flathers
Small plates are definitely the ‘next big thing’. We’re seeing them on menus everywhere, in ways that are different than traditional appetizers. They might be called ‘snacks’ or ‘noshes’ or ‘tastes to share for the table’, but these smaller plates are fueling a growing role in the customer experience—and building sales at a variety of price points.
• The menu incidence of small plates has grown an astonishing 1,370% since 2007, and 276% since 2013 (Datassential)
Sometimes when my wife and I go out to dinner, we want to have a little something to start the meal but aren’t hungry enough for a full appetizer. That’s when the small plate concept really proves its worth. The portion size and the price are generally less than an appetizer, so we can order one or two of these smaller tastes, and try something different that isn’t going to spoil our appetites or rack up a big bill.
For the operator, offering a few small plate options— or even interesting side dishes that can be ordered before the entrée— captures extra sales that would have otherwise been lost. It enhances the guest experience, and it builds sales. Sometimes people will even order something to go with a drink while they’re figuring what else to order for their meal. Putting small plates or bar snacks on the specialty cocktail list can help increase food sales.
Lazy Dog is a California-based chain with about two dozen locations that does a great job with small plates and bar snacks, flavorful little specialties like Bacon Candy, Fried Hush Puppies, and Charred Onion Dip with potato chips. There are also more full-on starters including quesadillas and flatbread and queso dip, but these small plates have their own section on the menu, are less expensive than traditional appetizers, and are very creative.
This past winter Lazy Dog ran a seasonal special called Roasted Street Carrots, organic rainbow heirloom carrots, garlic, queso blanco, cilantro lime crema and Mexican pepper sauce. This is like carrot sticks times 10: People will try them because carrots are very familiar, but the unique cooking technique and a delicious signature sauce made them interesting and justified the $7 menu price.
Small plates represent a way to test-market new menu additions. Many operators, including chains, offer reasonably priced LTOs (limited time offerings) that make news and respond well to promotions, on table tents, separate menus or server recommendations, and of course on social media. Anything that sells well and captures a fan base can go on the regular core menu or be brought back the following year.
A flavorful sauce, dip or marinade can really set small plates offerings apart. Even something as commonplace as French fries can be turned into a signature when it’s accompanied by a choice of dipping sauces or finished with a distinctive poutine-style topping. This is a great place to introduce on-trend flavors like a Middle Eastern tahini, yogurt and cilantro sauce or a spicy chile-spiked topping. Minor’s Ready-to-Use Sauces and Flavor Concentrates gives operators the ability to create signatures using core pantry ingredients.