Shareable plates like this flatbread pizza, topped with charred scallions, hummus, fresh greens and haloumi
cheese, are happy-hour options for patrons of Zaytinya, an Eastern Mediterranean concept in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of zaytinya. Bar snacks let operators upsell happy hour and maximize profits from small plates that satisfy every appetite
By Robin Schempp
As menu developers, how do we reconcile the seemingly opposing forces of increased culinary adventure on the part of the consumer with an overall industry shift toward casualization? Or the desire for customization along with the demand for increased value? How do we capitalize on the most profitable areas of our establishments without changing our concept?
Negotiating these conflicting trends is no easy achievement. But for many savvy operators the big answer has been an expansion of smaller bites: appetizers, finger foods, bar snacks, starters and shareables. However you label them, little tastes of flavor and sustenance enjoyed alongside a drink before dinner have migrated well beyond the 6 o’clock hour at the bar.
For decades, an array of pre-courses, from hors d’ oeuvres to appetizers, has preceded the main event or, as in the case of Spanish tapas, replaced it altogether. Southern European and Mediterranean tradition has long dictated that diners whet their appetites with mezze or aperitivos at a wine bar or café a few hours before their typically later dinner, or partake in amuse-bouches (literally mouth amusements) or shared antipasti in preparation for main courses.
Scandinavians lay out a smorgasbord of delicacies, enough to briefly pacify or altogether placate an appetite. Asian cultures have long relied on mini meals, often eaten on the street at any hour, in izakaya or Anju bars, at a communal yakitori counter or a family table for dim sum or yum cha. Meanwhile, in South America and the Caribbean, al fresco, handheld snacks and stand-up food from street vendors prevails.
Our own Western custom of cocktail or happy-hour snacks before — and ever-more-frequently stretching into — dinner has exploded. The fast-paced, mass-customized U.S. culture is embracing both tradition and trend, often classified simply as bar food. As further evidence that little bites deserve big consideration, here’s a look at the market forces driving this momentum and the operational advantages to be gained.
A blue-cheese sampler provides a flavorful and shareable happy hour addition. Photo courtesy of wisconsin milk marketing board. MARKET DRIVERS:
Customer-centric and customizable
• Big Flavors in Smaller Plates: While tastes are clearly more nomadic and experimental, increased pressures of time and economy leave little room for being locked into a disappointing main course. Increasingly sophisticated diners embrace multiple selections of small, modular building blocks from which to design their own progression of plates.
• Solo, Deuce and Group-Friendly: Singles can still compile a sampling that fits their needs without obliging themselves to a single plate, while couples can share a few intimate starters or structure several courses into a common meal. Groups of diners can mix and match to meet their pre-, post- or actual meal desires.
• Bar-Supporting Food: The migration of bar food from the lounge to the dining room has been a boost for beverage sales as well. With more festive and engaging small courses, guests feel free to consume beverages as if they are still at the bar.
• Casualized Expectations: This less-structured approach subdues demands on both servers and guests to get it all right: the timing, the order, the selection, the pairing and, importantly, the level of expectation.
• Creating Trial: Tastings present a competitive edge when guests want to test the waters before committing themselves. Diners locked into a full meal with a predictable appetizer/entrée/dessert format are more risk averse, while a list of more distinctive, unbundled, inexpensive dishes reduces the pressure to choose safely and encourages experimentation of new creations, many of which may lead to future signature items.
• Eatertainment: In an age where it’s either dinner or a form of conventional leisure activity, such as a concert or a movie, experimental grazing not only necessitates a convivial environment but also induces shared experience, culture, knowledge and discussion.
• Quelling the Veto Vote: In evaluating dining options, the exception becomes the rule when it comes to factors like varying health and dietary requirements/restrictions, more- or less-adventuresome diners, petite or big eaters. With a custom-build menu, each guest can compile a meal that reflects his or her personal needs and/or group dynamics.
• Menu Diversity Equals Perceived Value: Offering more and diverse flavors and ingredients in a modular-menu format enhances the customer’s perceived value without requiring a complete menu overhaul. New customers recognize the range of offerings, while regulars appreciate the variety.
Pots of cheese, pâtés and pork rillettes, on the menu at The Purple Pig in Chicago, are easy to make ahead but lend a touch of sophistication when served with toast or crackers as an upscale, satisfying snack. Photo courtesy of the purple pig. OPERATIONAL ADVANTAGES
Increases profit, reduces pressure
• Putting Time and Space Constraints to Work: Squeezing bigger margins from smaller spaces such as standing rooms, reception area, side bars, and off-peak times like shoulder dining periods becomes a reality with a discrete list of small-sized options. Guests in the que or perusing the menu are more likely to tack on that extra “wait plate” nibble than a classic appetizer which commonly connotes part of the sit-down meal.
• Boosts in Sales and Satisfaction: Oddly, smaller portions often drive larger check averages. Small-plate converts report that selling more of less is often easier than expected; everyone gets to order their favorite, and balancing meats and sides, hot and cold and progressive orders with drinks increases item orders — and hence check averages — exponentially.
• Lower Labor: Many cold and ambient small plates can be prepped ahead or batched and built by non-cooks, while well-chosen hot components have long hold times or may require only a quick finish, allowing kitchen staff to finish in off hours and thus reduce line pressure.
• Guides Menu Planning: What better vehicle to plan and test a new menu item, menu mix, functionality and patron appeal than an easily adjustable list of little tastes? Less-expensive petite portions are also an effective way to upsell higher-value menu items, establishing customer preference for ingredients, preparations and accompaniments.
• Speed of Service: Unlike sequentially established courses, snacks and smaller-portion orders are generally expedited as they become ready, thereby giving the kitchen, waiters and guests greater flexibility in food delivery.
• Happiest Hours: Scaled-down plates allow the operator to build a collection of snacks and mini and shareable meals that satisfies the demographic inclinations at any hour — early sandwiches for those who missed lunch, hors d’ oeuvres that pair well with craft cocktails, shareables for waiting parties during peak and late-night noshes and sweets for after-hours cravings.
• Bigger Bar Margin: High-margin cocktails, wine by the glass and draft-beer programs naturally increase with a companion menu of petite portions and family-style shareables. Bar customers are more willing to linger with a little something to eat while diners detach from the structure of prescribed course companions. Flavor pairings and thematically inspired connections (such as Tiki drinks and pu-pu platters) further promote beverage orders.
• Utilization: Petite portions and communal dishes are ideal mediums for using excess product from other menu sections. Post-portion trim; off-weight cuts; existing mise en place; seasonal or perishable produce; surplus and visually challenged product carefully composed can cover a core menu while small-plate specials augment utilization of unplanned extras.
• New Opportunities: A discrete menu of diminutive dishes and shared plates can be a practical and realistic format for launching or testing food in new, beverage-only or other non-food venues and dayparts free of the commitments associated with a full menu and kitchen.