At a time when consumers are ever cautious about their restaurant spending, full-service operators have found their best chance to get customers to try a new dish is by menuing it as an appetizer.
In many cases the appetizers are shared, which gives chefs even more opportunity to flex their creativity muscles and put out new and innovative offerings.
“I think you can absolutely be more creative with an appetizer because it is such a small portion. You can really do more things in smaller quantities, and they always look a lot nicer,” says Tony Conte, executive chef of the Oval Room in Washington.
Conte estimates 95 percent of his customers ask for appetizers.
“It seems that now more than ever customers are ordering appetizers,” Conte says. “Desserts are hit and miss, but not the appetizers.”
One of the Oval Room’s most popular appetizers is Barbecued Lentils. Conte hydrates the lentils in a barbecue-flavored liquid and then cooks them in the same way that baked beans are processed. Instead of bacon, Conte adds cold-smoked and maple-cured foie gras. Other popular appetizer selections include Truffled Pasta; a Baby Beet Salad with passion fruit; Foie Gras Terrine with blackberry, vanilla, and black olive; and a Maine Peekytoe Crab Salad with rhubarb, young coconut, and lemon verbena. Appetizers range in price from $10 to $16.
Conte is even taking the consumers’ appetite for appetizers up a notch. Next year he plans to open a restaurant right across the street from the Oval Room, which is located at 800 Connecticut Avenue NW, that is dedicated solely to appetizers. “We are going to have 20 items on one sheet of paper. We don’t have a name yet, but we will start construction in June.”
At traditional casual-dining restaurants, 75 percent of consumers who purchase appetizers share them, according to Technomic research, while that percentage drops to 65 percent at upscale-casual restaurants.
Appetizers available all day long
Many full-service restaurants make their appetizers available throughout the day in the bar to entice patrons looking for a nibble, or to share a small dish or two. Some of the items that are becoming ubiquitous across the country include popcorn in a host of incarnations, olives of every variety, toasted or roasted nuts, housemade fries, housemade pickles and deviled eggs.
Christopher Bates, who is the general manager and executive chef at Bar Louis at the Hotel Fauchère in Milford, Pa., which is located about 75 miles outside of New York City, agrees that sharing and tasting menu items is a big draw for patrons when ordering appetizers.
“I think a lot of times people order appetizers because it gives them an affordable opportunity to experience a lot of different flavors,” Bates says.
At the Relais & Chateaux property, www.hotelfauchere.com, which was founded in 1852 by Delmonico’s master chef, Louis Fauchère, the dishes are created using local products and housemade ingredients.
The fine-dining restaurant in the hotel, The Delmonico Room, offers contemporary interpretations of the classics in a nightly prix fixe tasting menu.
Some of the more popular appetizer offerings in the hotel’s Bar Louis include the Sushi Pizza with tuna, sushi rice tempura, and tobiko; Housemade BBQ Pork Rinds; Farfalle Pasta with housemade sausage and kale; Eggplant Tart; Local Farmstead Cheeses; Crispy Baby Artichokes; and Grilled Spicy Kale.
“We sell a ton of our grilled kale. We use garlic, shallots, chili, and olive oil in the dish. That appetizer is a great example of listening to our customers. They told us they were getting tired of broccoli rabe, so we made a substitution. I have been totally shocked by how much we have sold,” Bates says. “Luckily, it is available all year round.”
When creating a new appetizer, Bates always thinks first of the product he wants to highlight and goes from there. “After we know what product we will be using, we work around it trying to create an emotion and a style. Do we want it to be a comfort food, soft, a composed food? We also have to make sure that it fits into a meal and that it is sized and priced right,” Bates says. “If you have to charge more than you think the customer is willing to pay, you have to ask if it is worth putting on the menu.”
Bates says he keeps his food costs at about 28 percent, but certain appetizers such as artichokes are difficult to menu because “you have to make enough money to make it worth doing, and that is hard to do with artichokes.” To that end Bates grows artichokes and a host of vegetables in the hotel’s garden, located about a mile from the property.
Dips are popular at casual restaurants
Technomic research also shows that the most commonly ordered appetizer at casual-dining restaurants is a dip or dipping sauce; at upscale casual-dining restaurants, the most popular are breaded proteins such as fried calamari, breaded crab cakes, potstickers, and eggrolls.
Mary Chapman, who is director of product innovation for Technomic, says the trends in appetizers that she is noticing include: minis, including burgers and other sandwiches, street foods, meatballs, hummus, plates with a few different appetizers or a few different dips or spreads, Asian items, and appetizers as part of combo meals such as the promotion that Applebee’s is running.
Gerry Ludwig, who is a corporate consulting chef with Gordon Food Service in Grand Rapids, Mich., dines in more than 120 restaurants each year to study national trends. He has done extensive research on appetizers, shared plates and the rising trend in full-service snack menus.
One trend that Ludwig notes is that appetizers may not necessarily be called appetizers anymore. “Probably the largest trend that we are seeing is an increasing number of operators who are actually moving away from calling their appetizers, appetizers. They are taking their salads, soups, side dishes and their appetizers to the top of the menu and grouping them together as shared plates as opposed to separate plates,” Ludwig says.
“Sharing plates is truly the term that chefs are using; the term small plates has gone out of the window.”
Ludwig says six categories offer full-service restaurant operators real sales-building opportunities in appetizers or sharing plates.
The first is what Ludwig refers to as “crocks and smears.” “We are seeing restaurants that are creating a separate appetizer section for meat spreads, vegetable and cheese spreads that are served with toasted or grilled bread.”
At Davanti Enoteca in Chicago, this category is called vasi, which is Italian for vessels. The restaurant serves four different items in crocks: a ricotta cheese spread for $5, an olive tapanade for $4, a liver pate for $5, and a fresh mozzarella spread for $8.
At Palate Food and Wine in Glendale, Calif., the spreads, which also include fish spreads, are served in Mason jars.
Meatballs and sausages a growing trend
Another category that is making real inroads on menus, Ludwig says, is meatballs and sausages. “Chefs are becoming much more creative, and this provides a growing opportunity. We have seen funky beef balls — miniature beef balls with onion and garlic and deep-fried.”
At Rustic Canyon Wine Bar and Seasonal Kitchen in Santa Monica, Calif., a kurobuta pork meatball appetizer is offered featuring roasted tomatoes, pickled chilis, and green olives. The dish sells for $14.
Charcuterie and cheese plates are also gaining in popularity, Ludwig says. “It really isn’t possible for people to keep six cheeses at home, so when they go out they really love the opportunity to try new varieties.”
Cheese boards and charcuterie boards are “huge” today, he says. “There is very little labor involved in these offerings, but the work comes in finding the proper supplier. For the most part the cheeses and meats they are serving are not inexpensive,” Ludwig says.
At Hopleaf in Chicago, there is a charcuterie trio offering that showcases the best cured meats the restaurant can find. The plate is garnished with housemade pickles and a cup of grain mustard with toasted bread.
Another category gaining traction in full-service restaurants is bruschetta and crostinis, or a composed smear. “Any sort of spread or vegetable that is served on bread,” Ludwig says.
At Beauty and Essex, which is on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Jewels on Toast features a rotating menu of five different crostinis: a classic tomato; liver mousse; avocado with chili pepper and lemon; sliced pears and ricotta cheese; and different lobes of roasted bone marrow.
Ludwig says mussels have become more popular than ever, with many restaurants serving them in bowls, which are easy for sharing.
At Lukshon in Culver City, Calif., mussels are served in green chili curry with coconut and lime. The Asian-influenced dish sells for $18.
Rounding out the six categories is vegetables. According to Ludwig, “It is one of the most exciting and holds the most potential.
“We are seeing a lot of operators that are eliminating their side dishes and moving them to the top of the menu. Chefs are applying much more aggressive cooking techniques that make the vegetables flavorful enough to be served as an appetizer right alongside a protein-based appetizer.”
At Gjelina in Venice, Calif., there is a nightly offering of 12 vegetables that are meant to be a shared plate or appetizer. They are all $8 and might include charred brussels sprouts with bacon, dates and vinegar; grilled Russian kale with lamb sausage, yogurt dressing and toasted hazelnuts; and braised sprouting broccoli that is served with smoked ham and tomato broth.
Appetizer sales on the upswing at Jones
Andrew Wagner, who is executive chef at Jones in Philadelphia, www.jones-restaurant.com, one of star chef’s Stephen Starr restaurants, says appetizer sales are rising at his restaurant, which specializes in upscale comfort food.
“We see a trend of appetizers on the rise. With the current climate of tapas-style restaurants increasing, we sometimes see our guests moving away from a traditional coursed meal and instead ordering appetizers in a coursed fashion, allowing them to try many different things instead of committing to just one specific dish.”
Jones prices its appetizers in the $7 to $14 range, and its best-selling dish is mac and cheese. “We sell over 15,000 a year,” Wagner says. “It is an easy dish for people to relate to, and it translates well with our concept of comfort food.”
Wagner says he is constantly trying to solicit feedback to tap into his customers’ wants and needs. “It is from feedback we can brainstorm new ideas and also perfect our product.”
Wagner says the trend of sharing is alive and well at Jones. “Guests are looking for items to share. Guests at Jones usually order several appetizers that they can share, and our guests generally like the appetizers to remain on their tables throughout their meals, as they can easily coexist as side accompaniments to their entrees.”
Another reason consumers may gravitate toward appetizers is that it allows them to try new items that they might not be too sure about.
Getting more rings of flavor
Executive chef John Castro of Winston’s in Louisville, Ky., says he frequently notices that trend in his restaurant.
“There are a number of people who just like to eat appetizers because they get more rings of flavor. If it is something they are not familiar with, it gives them a chance to order at a much more reasonable price.”
Castro says the still-sluggish economy is a big factor for consumers when navigating the menu.
“With all the money issues right now, it seems that consumers are willing to spend the money on innovation, but they don’t want anything too crazy because if they don’t like it, where are they?”
Winston’s caters to palates of all stripes. One of his big sellers is The Not Brown, which comprises fried green tomatoes with shrimp and crab, bacon, green onions, tomatoes, and Mornay sauce, and sells for $13. The dish is a play off of the Hot Brown, which is a sandwich that was invented in the 1920’s at Louisville’s Brown Hotel and is an open-faced turkey sandwich with bacon and Mornay sauce. “There are many nights when this dish accounts for 50 percent of our appetizer sales,” Castro says.
Castro says he is noticing a lot of Indian influence right now, and he attributes that largely to the influx of Indian people to the United States.
“Indian food is sold as hot, whereas with Mexican food the heat is largely on the side. Now that people are more and more traveled, the Indian flavor profiles are more authentic.”
Another trend that Castro notices is new flavor profiles being introduced to retro dishes. “I think this trend is coming from the millennials and the somewhat younger crowds. You see it in popular culture such as the movie, ‘The Help,’ and the huge hit that the Casserole Queens, an Austin, Texas-based food delivery service, has become.
“Many people searched the Internet for recipes inspired by ‘The Help.’ It makes sense because retro is a real trend, but you still would be surprised,” Castro says.
Castro also notes he sells a lot of seafood appetizers. “I think that has to do with the fact that seafood entrees are more expensive.”
But Castro cautions that it is imperative to employ a savvy waitstaff to encourage guests to order more than one appetizer to recoup the price differential.
“It is all about paying rent off of the seat. If customers only order two appetizers at $15 apiece and they are out the door, then you don’t get what you would have for one entrée at $40.”