Behind BRAVO | BRIO Restaurant Group's Chef-Driven Menu Innovation
These days, diners of all ages are enjoying smaller bites so they can taste a bit of everything. They like to belly up to bars with expansive cocktail menus and interesting wines, and to enjoy a full meal while sitting there.
The team at BRAVO | BRIO Restaurant Group (BBRG) knows this. That’s why, last year, the group introduced BRIO Coastal Bar and Kitchen, the next-generation metamorphosis of upscale Italian restaurant BRIO Tuscan Grille. The menu includes lighter fare, and the scene is more energetic and social.
At press time, there were five Coastal locations, including new builds and conversions from older BRIO and BRAVO! Cucina Italiana locations in California, North Carolina, Florida, and Ohio. The restaurant group plans to expand in 2018, as well, in the form of additional conversions.
The task for Brian Harvey, BBRG’s corporate executive chef, was to figure out how to translate evolving dining preferences into a menu at Coastal. Harvey focused on building out the small plates section of the menu at Coastal, with about 35 percent of dishes focused on healthier, lighter, and fresher fare as a way to draw longtime loyalists, but also to attract newer demographics like younger diners, women, families, and larger groups.
Harvey and Chef Alison Peters, BBRG’s other executive chef, put the entire menu together in just six weeks, starting with 80 ideas that led them to the final bunch of 35 dinner dishes, from classic mains to small plates, handhelds (sandwiches), and salads. The finished menu will take diners on trips to cities like Chicago, where Harvey and Peters found a seared and deboned half chicken that they decided to add to the menu as the popular F.T.C. (flat top chicken) dish served with roasted potatoes, broccolini, and a lemon butter sauce.
True to Coastal’s Italian roots, there had to be calamari, but Harvey’s twist on the classic involves a drizzling of sweet chile aioli and spicy buffalo sauces balanced by fresh lime juice and chopped cilantro. Buffalo sauce also makes its way into the vegetable-forward buffalo cauliflower small plate with horseradish, gorgonzola, and scallion.
Other popular dishes include a roasted red and gold beet salad with whipped feta, lemon juice, and toasted marcona almonds; an oven-baked shrimp scampi with lemon, white wine, fresh tomatoes, and ciabatta; and seared scallops atop a butternut squash purée with house-made chimichurri sauce and crunchy pistachios. All of these are served alongside cocktails like the Honey Bourbon Manhattan, craft beers, a robust selection of wines, and nonalcoholic options, too, like cucumber coconut water and house-made lemonade.
The brunch menu includes avocado toast with eggs and granola-crusted French toast, while lunch offerings will lead diners to a double-stacked burger or kale Caesar salad. There is also a kids’ menu to cater to families.
“I would describe the menu as a little more vegetable-centric and less traditional,” Harvey says. “[Not] every entrée comes with a starch and a vegetable like you might often find at BRAVO!.”
The style of the new Coastal concept was also important. “We tried to take a little more latitude outside of a more traditional Italian restaurant and create a more lively, social place,” Harvey says. “Our feeling is that guests these days are more about the experience than they are just about the type of cuisine being served. Instead of saying they want to go somewhere for Italian food, they want to go somewhere that feels good and to socialize in a lighter, more airy space.”
In addition to new concepts like Coastal, Harvey also works to revamp old favorites on the menu at BRIO and BRAVO!—a process that is quite calculated. Technology improvements that mine and analyze sales data have allowed BBRG to see which dishes are selling better than others and measure menu changes at all of its restaurants. “We take sales into consideration when reinventing the menus, but we also look at other things, such as how many different prep items go into one dish,” Harvey says. Cross-utilization of food purchases helps simplify cooking and training, and, of course, reduces overall food costs. In addition, the team studies surveys and feedback from its loyalty program, comment cards, and servers to further improve their systems.
To test out new dishes, the team uses special menus and limited-time offerings. If an item doesn’t do well during the test drive, Harvey and his team might move the dish around on a menu for a different season before giving up on it entirely. Last September, the team helped change BRAVO!’s menu to include a new brunch and bar menu, as well as more appetizers, like sausage- and ricotta-stuffed banana peppers and shrimp bruschetta, in an attempt to drive add-on sales. The team was prepping for a big bar menu change, too.
But to execute a change in menu at a restaurant group with well over 100 locations stretching across 32 states, Harvey must turn to the brand’s district partners (regional managers) and regional chefs. “I rely on their feedback to determine if there are dishes we need to tweak or other areas we need to focus on,” Harvey says. “We are a strong team.”