The start of a new year is a great time to take a close look at your menu. With the holiday rush over, take advantage of your “extra” time by putting some serious thought into new or updated dishes you’ve been itching to try.
I sat down with our own Chris Tavano on his tips for menu planning. You might recognize Chris from our videos featured on our YouTube channel. Chris has over 15 years of restaurant experience from dishwashing to sous chef, and has worked in a wide variety of food concepts ranging from catering, private chef and fine dining to large-scale and high volume establishments. Chris prides himself on made from scratch food based on his Mediterranean roots. A true gastronome, Chris attains the best quality of ingredients to be treated with the highest care of respect. His passion for food stands out through his sincere approach to the kitchen.
Here are a few of his tips for tackling a menu change at your restaurant:
1. Start with the dream menu
Throw out the rule book (just for right now). If you could make any dish you ever wanted, what would it be? For the purposes of this exercise, be limitless. Forget if you can’t easily find wood-foraged mushrooms or if Kobe beef is obscenely expensive. Being creative is about freeing your mind to allow inspiration to strike. You never know where the next great idea may be lurking.
Ok, have your wildly imaginative list handy?
Now put the reins back on. Comb through your list with a discerning eye. Does the dish fit the concept of your restaurant? For example, if you’re restaurant is known for its French cuisine, should a Thai dish be on the menu? Also consider the logistics. Would your staff be able to easily assemble the dish with the proper presentation? Allowing yourself to be creative with your dishes, while simultaneously being critical on its fit for your business will make for an outstanding menu you can be proud of.
2. Create a menu based on the seasons
Another option for approaching menu creation is sourcing those ingredients which are already in season. Not only are these ingredients easier to come by (and probably cheaper too), guests love the idea of a restaurant keeping its dishes fresh and ever-changing. Also consider the shelf life on some of these ingredients. No doubt you’ve enjoyed the (several) weeks-long shelf life of those autumn squashes—what other ingredients can you utilize? Seasonally-based menus have great PR with guests, and work well with your bottom line.
3. Update the classics with a modern take
Perhaps you’re interested in updating your menu but aren’t interested in taking the plunge for an entire revamp—no problem! Try picking a few dishes that could be modified by utilizing unexpected pairings. Some ways to do this is with simple substitutions that are either seasonal, or depending on your costs, help your bottom line. Customers will love the seasonal twist and you’ll love the higher margins. You also might find that highlighting a specific ingredient will be an unexpected strike of inspiration that your restaurant is looking for.
Another way of revamping your existing menu is by showcasing the main focus of the dish (protein or vegetable) with fewer ingredients. Try making the dish with only 3-5 ingredients but still aim for the level of complexity and aesthetics you would normally achieve to attain. By taking an ordinarily complex dish and simplifying it you not only reduce food costs but you let the primary ingredient shine on its own, free of additional contrasts and complementary flavors and textures.
That was the fun part, but now’s the time to get to the nuts and bolts. A core component to planning is finding out if your proposed menu is actually feasible to execute—which costs both time and money.
Here are a few additional considerations:
1. Menu costs
In an ideal world you’d make whatever you want with whichever ingredients you want. Unfortunately with rising food costs and your main priority of staying in business (turning a profit is great, too!), prime ingredient selection might not always be feasible. When addressing your menu take into account like:
- Portioning – is this dish best suited for an appetizer, Tapas, or a main entrée? Sizing greatly affects your costs and how much you can sell it for.
- Batch recipes – can you save when you purchase in bulk? Also consider making in bulk as well: dressings/vinaigrettes, marinades, adobo etc. all lend itself to batch preparation in advance to save you time.
- Component ingredients—don’t forget the cost associated with condiments, sauces, etc.
- Plate cost – consider both your plate cost and plate price to consumers. What is the total cost for you to produce the dish as a whole once you break down all of the contributing ingredients? From there, consider your breakeven point and the profit margin you wish to attain (typically aiming for 35%-60%). For example:
Total Cost of Dish = $10
Menu Price = $20
Profit = $10 or 50%
Markup from Cost = 100%
2. Don’t lose your big sellers
Sure, you’ve made those crab cakes more than you can shake a stick at it, but they’re still a huge customer favorite at your restaurant. Before you nix your classics, consider your customers. Loyal and repeat customers know and love these dishes, and they’ll notice their absence immediately. If you stop making the dish, you stop giving customers a reason to come in.
Instead try gradual changes.
If your audience is a real stickler against change, you may want to consider slowly altering your dishes over time. By creating a slow progression of a dish change, you help customers become accustomed to different flavors more easily. That way, when you are ready to pull the plug, it isn’t as jarring to your customer.
3. An opportunity for a secret menu?
You may have heard about the secret menus at In-N-Out Burger or McDonald’s. While it could be considered cliché now, there’s still a time and place for secret menus. Use a secret menu to hold onto certain dishes which you know are customer favorites—not only will your loyal customers be excited to still order the food, but they’ll feel even more important for being “in the know.” On the other hand, try using a secret menu to showcase your out-of-the-box and more creative dishes, allowing you to get fun and creative without compromising business operations. Never underestimate the importance of people feeling “special.” There’s one caveat though—secret menus are subject to what ingredients are on hand, and how busy the kitchen is (customer’s shouldn’t always expect special orders during a busy Friday or Saturday dinner service). Secret menus, when utilized appropriately, could be a make or break moment for you.
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