Margaritaville’s Sirloin and Shrimp Combo, served with mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables, shows how portion size and presentation matters when combining proteins. Photo courtesy of margaritaville. Chefs weigh multiple factors when considering protein positioning
By Karen Weisberg
Chefs in charge of culinary development have a lot in common with those intrepid circus performers who balance step-by-step on the high wire; there are parallels as well with jugglers who keep an incredible number and variety of objects whirling around without mishap — all-consuming efforts designed to delight and satisfy the paying audience.
Throughout each and every day, the culinarian must balance the back-of-the-house and center-of-the-plate issues of “Quality” versus “Quantity” without missing a step, while maintaining a wide offering of protein options in just the right portion size to keep food costs in line, reap a profit and satisfy the guest.
Each of four chefs we interviewed tread very carefully when implementing needed portion-size adjustments in order to reduce food costs and keep menu pricing affordable.
PORTIONS FOR ALL
As vice president of culinary development for BJ’s Restaurants Inc. — with 120 locations nationwide and 12 more slated to open by year’s end — Raymond Martin is most emphatically not reducing portion sizes of existing products.
“You don’t want to change something that’s already established,” he asserts. However, he continues to look at new items and typically offers them in an array of portion sizes and price points. In fact, recently added Small Snacks & Bites offerings (starting at $2.95) have been tremendously successful and are actually becoming add-ons to the entrée order, Martin says.
In keeping with one of BJ’s philosophies and visions — that is, having something for everyone — Martin designs the menu to include various size portions. “If you just have one size, you’ve got a problem — you could portion yourself out of the business. So we do lunch size, half size, etc.,” he says. “The guest can choose one pork chop with roasted potatoes versus two pork chops with roasted potatoes. We aim to be a ‘no veto’ restaurant; they can have the size they want.”
While not reducing the portion size of anything that already exists on the menu, Martin has much greater leeway with newly created Enlightened Entrées, designed to pack a “more healthful” 575 calories or less. Introduced two years ago in response to customer demand, he’s ecstatic that “sales are booming!” Chicken a la Fresca and Roasted Mahi Mahi over Roasted Pineapple Fried Rice are top sellers. For Enlightened Entrées, an order of mashed potatoes on the plate is now 6 ounces instead of 8 ounces, so he’s not reducing protein portion size, but he may reduce the amount of ingredients around the plate.
Martin recalls that from the time he joined the Huntington Beach, Calif.-based company in 2004, he spent the next three years improving quality and finding “better” vendors.
“For example, instead of using a frozen patty, we now menu a hand-formed, fresh Angus chuck product made for us,” he says. “We know people respond positively to the ‘Angus’ descriptor and that was important to us — plus, we improved the protein quality by three levels!
“Quality is Number 1, but Consistency is 1A,” he contends. “If I can produce something that eight out of ten guests like, that’s great, but it has to be consistent. Every vendor has a range of product and you have to consider everything — but the bottom line is: Quality always sells if you execute it well.”
Crafting a combo featuring two complementary proteins is another strategy to balance portion flexibilities, food costs and customer expectations. Martin notes that BJ’s guests respond favorably to the option of choosing a grilled shrimp skewer to add to their steak for $3 more, or they may add salmon to their salad.
“We know people like to pair a few things together,” he points out. “They’re getting more options and more flavor, so, even though it adds to the check, it’s still more of a value proposition to our guests.”
BJ’s aims to be a “no veto restaurant” where diners can have the portion size they want, as with these Barbacoa Tacos on the “Enlightened Entrées” menu, featuring corn tortillas filled with spicy barbacoa beef and served with black beans and a tangy slaw. Photo courtesy of bj’s restaurants inc.. PROTEIN ANALYSIS
Like many other high-volume menu developers, Phil Klinkenberg, vice president of food and beverage for Orlando-based Margaritaville Hospitality Group, ponders the issue of quality versus quantity on the menu.
“Today, the cost of doing business is more expensive,” he says. Several times a year, he closely scrutinizes what his 14 domestic and 13 international restaurants are menuing versus the casual-dining competition. While strongly asserting that he won’t reduce portion sizes, he works very diligently through the supply chain to make sure he’s capturing the best pricing he can get for product. “We work through specification to control costs that way, then we price to remain on a par with our competition in each city,” he says.
Klinkenberg aims to analyze every menued protein from every aspect he can think of that could potentially impact the guests’ quality perception of that item. He’s deciding whether he has the quintessentially “right” steak on the Margaritaville menu; currently, it’s a center-cut top sirloin, available plain, teriyaki-style and surf-and-turf. “But now we’re looking at a New York strip to provide a better steak value for our guests,” he says. “Plus, we’ve looked at cutting our half chicken differently, or perhaps changing it to just a breast. The amount of meat is the same — and actually would cost us more — but it’s a nicer presentation and easier to eat.”
He figures that serving the breast would be easier to eat and provide more prep options back-of-the-house (such as chicken teriyaki, currently in test at several venues), adding to menu variety.
Not surprisingly, given the chain’s island-paradise theme, all sizes of shrimp — ranging from 16/20s to 175/220s — are menued in innumerable combinations and permutations, and Klinkenberg has debated the value of each. Would the visual appeal be just as good if smaller shrimp were utilized in certain recipes, or larger but fewer in others?
Finfish actually winds up being one of the chains’ biggest cost items, Klinkenberg admits. “We use an 8-oz. portion of fish for jerk salmon, Calypso Mahi Mahi or our Catch of the Day. I don’t think dropping to six ounces is a good idea in respect to providing value to our guest — although it is a temptation,” he says. There are good reasons to do it from a business perspective, but not from a price-value perspective, he explains. “When it’s noted ‘At Market Price,’ on the menu, we can adjust our cost and if the cost is $20 per pound for grouper, for example, I’d sell less, but if I’m paying $16 per pound and reduce the menu price accordingly, I can sell more — that’s what it’s all about.”
FLEXIBILITY AND ‘COMFORTABILITY’
Ask Klinkenberg about the value to his operation of choosing “underutilized cuts” and he’ll tell you that he figures his guests will be adventurous only up to a point.
“Our research shows they’re looking for ‘comfortability.’ From a quality perspective, we prefer an easily recognizable sirloin for people to make an easy decision,” he says.
Perhaps by the beginning of next year, “mixed grill” may be prominently menued at Margaritaville. Instead of the individual 10-oz. portion of house sirloin or an 8-oz. salmon (both of which would still be menued), the mixed grill would offer a 5-oz. steak plus four ounces of salmon.
“This will give guests options to choose among four proteins — the concept gives that element of customization,” Klinkenberg says. “I think it’s a good idea and we’re looking to see if it’s operationally sound; that is, can our team execute it if items come off more than one station? I think we can certainly do it while giving the staff every opportunity to succeed.”
Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill’s 66 locations boast grillmasters known far and wide for their respect for the “power of the open flame.” In fact — it has been decreed — pulled pork is to be slow smoked for 11 hours over hickory logs every single night at every Smokey Bones location.
Mark Bibby, vice president of culinary since 2007 for the Orlando-based operation, often ponders the pros and cons of whether to increase or decrease portion size. He says there’s one overarching truth he’s sure of: “Quality, pricing, portion size plus perception all have to work together.”
Bibby notes that increasing the amount of broccoli and potato, for example, can overpower a smaller protein portion and make it appear even smaller. “Even the size of the garnish or a ramekin with a side sauce needs to create a balanced presentation so it still looks like good perceived value.”
Since the concept smokes its own products, Bibby and his staff are experts at utilizing lesser-known cuts to good effect, both flavor-wise and cost-wise.
“I take a Boston butt (about $1.20 per pound) and I can turn it into a nice 7-oz. center-of-the-plate protein; it’s a good price for me and the perceived value is great for the guest,” he notes. “For actual pulled pork — one of our signature items — we use a good quality but less expensive cut; it’s all about having that smoker in the restaurant.”
Bibby keeps three goals ever top of mind: For one, the guest should be overly satisfied with the quality and quantity they’re given; second, the menu should be at a price point where Smokey Bones can afford to make a profit; and, third, get the guest to return. And with those goals in mind, he’s thrilled but not surprised that CYO2 (Choose Your Own/Twice) has become the chain’s bestseller.
“We recommend two different proteins (each a few ounces less than if it was the only protein plated), plus two sides and garlic bread (priced at $11.95). The perceived value is huge!
“In addition, our Build Your Own Burgers concept, introduced last spring, has increased our burger sales by 50 percent,” he exclaims. “Depending on the ingredients guests add, the price point is their choosing.”
In his juggling act of continuously improving food costs while maintaining high quality — and not alienating guests with prices that are beyond them — Matthew Jost indirectly champions smaller portions by menuing two different-sized portion choices. As research and development chef for Weber Grill Restaurants (with three locations in the Chicago area plus one in Indianapolis), he concedes, “the food cost for any operator is very important, but we need to take care of our guests. Generally, we leave the protein the same size since many are repeat guests; they come in with a certain expectation and will notice very quickly if we start to pare down.”
And, as Smokey Bones’ Bibby noted, other items should be proportional to be “balanced,” such as a thicker, 2-oz. ramekin versus a 2-oz. metal bullet. “That [ceramic] would better fill up real estate on the plate,” Jost points out.
In a grill-centric concept such as Weber Grill, menuing an underutilized yet cost-effective cut such as a hanger steak versus bone-in filet is a no-brainer, says Jost. “In my professional opinion, bone-in tenderloin is flavorless but very tender since it’s not an active muscle, versus hanger steak, which is a little less tender but a lot more flavorful. Marinades are a very key factor in imparting flavor into lesser cuts of meat.”
However, he cautions, leave the menu price the same while reducing your food cost. “In guests’ minds, lowering the menu price is associated with reduced quality,” he says.
One of the challenges with menuing underutilized cuts is the awareness and customer comfort. “Guests will always associate the known — tenderloin, for example — as a quality piece of meat because it has name recognition,” says Jost. “But if they have confidence in the chef, they’ll try it once.”
Jost views plating small amounts of two complementary proteins together as a delicious idea that “will absolutely reduce cost, but not necessarily reduce portion size.” He suggests this concept allows you to offer really great flavor — perhaps pairing classic duck leg confit with roasted duck breast — while giving guests an introduction to your own personal palate.
In summing up a quantity-versus-quality discussion, Jost warns that excessive quantity can have a negative reflection on quality. “In some restaurants, a ‘portion’ is a five-gallon bucket of food,” he says, warning chefs to use caution with large quantities, to avoid the perception of “the greater the quantity, the lesser the quality.”
Today’s consumers are becoming more aware of quality, even more so when it comes to protein.
“Obviously, I think quality and transparency are very important,” sums up BJ’s Restaurant’s Martin. “People are very savvy in recognizing it.”
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