Cleo
Cleo at the Redbury in Los Angeles has customers evenly split between men and women.

Small Plates Are Big Business

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Tapas combine ethnic flavors and plate-sharing to create today's hottest fine-dining trend.
By Ellen Koteff October 2011

Tapas are a little bit like Kleenex, which began as a category-defining brand but is now often used generically. While tapas are Spanish, the food term has become synonymous with virtually all small plates regardless of culinary origin.

Blame it on fusion cuisine, which has blurred boundaries while being embraced by consumers who are looking for delicious dishes that satisfy their palate no matter what the food’s roots.

In Spain tapas can be anything from a small plate of cheese to hot meats and sauce baked casserole-style. The term applies to just about anything served on a small plate.

At Café Madrid in Dallas, which has been open for 22 years and began when the owner fell in love with Spain while on vacation, it’s all about authenticity.

“I fell in love with Spain when I was a teenager. When I would come back to Dallas, I would go through withdrawals,” says owner Donica Jimenez. “I figured the best way to teach other people about my love of Spain was to open up a place that was a little bit like Spain.”

Jimenez says a lot of people judge a Spanish restaurant by the Spanish omelet, or Tortilla Espanola.

“Our biggest seller is the omelet. It is a very simple dish made with onions, potatoes and egg. It is the staple in the Spanish diet. We have a guy who comes in, and that is all he makes.”

Café Madrid has an all-tapas menu, and there are about 40 dishes.

“You might think that a man might find it hard to fill up on tapas, but we have a lot of substantial items with beef, quail and sausage. So they go away satisfied,” Jimenez says.

While Café Madrid sticks to the basics and does home-style, authentic tapas, Jimenez says she has seen a lot of “trendy” tapas places come and go.

“I think it is because they tried to be too trendy and too modern. That is not what Spanish food is about.”

Foodservice consultant Pamela Parseghian says there is more than one reason tapas are popular.

“It goes along with the trend for Spanish food as well as small portions. People like small tastes because they can get bored with big plates of the same food. Some call that palate fatigue.”

Kathy Hayden, who is a foodservice analyst at Mintel, says it is the tapas style of eating that has gone mainstream.

“Traditional versions of Spanish tapas (bowls of olives, salt cod fritters) never really made it to mainstream, yet the style of eating lots of small plates, bar snacks, appetizers and starters, along with beer or wine, can be seen as a broader and longer-lasting influence of the tapas trend, which probably peaked a few years ago.”

Hayden also points out that in consumers’ minds there are pluses and minuses when it comes to tapas.

“There's also a bit of backlash against the idea of ordering a bunch of non-entree plates and having the bill add up exponentially. So, on the plus side are the flexibility and variety of flavors. On the down side is the sticker/portion-size shock, and the challenges of timing the meal and ordering the right amount of food.”

At The Bazaar by José Andrés at SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, there are 80 tapas menu items, and prices range from $6 to $42.

The best-selling menu items, according to Shanon Ferguson, general manager of the restaurant, are Not Your Everyday Caprese, Tuna Ceviche, Jamon Platter and Sautéed Garlic Shrimp.

Ferguson says The Bazaar also embraces another popular trend, local sourcing.

“José Andrés works with our chef de cuisine, Joshua Whigham, to establish frequent visits to the Farmers Market in order to incorporate local and sustainable products into our menu options.

“Being a restaurant in California, it is very important for us to utilize the resources in our area, providing our guests with fresh and seasonal new menu items,” she says.

Ferguson sees the tapas trend migrating to other cuisines as well.

“All varying cuisines are conforming to tapas service or a small plates concept similar to mezze (Mediterranean), or antojitos (Mexican). These are all styles José works with incorporating into his restaurant concept.”

Originally the serving of tapas was designed to encourage conversation because people were not focusing on eating an entire meal.

Chef Nathan Crouser, who heads the kitchen at New York’s Pera, agrees that sharing dishes makes conversations a little easier.

“It is really nice for our guests to be able to share the food with each other as they talk and eat. I think that really adds to the appeal.”

At Pera, which specializes in Eastern Mediterranean Meze plates, the most popular dishes are warm hummus with pastirma, and calamari with pidettes, which are small flatbreads.

Crouser says the public’s desire to try new dishes, which boosts small-plates business, can be attributed in part to ubiquitous food coverage.

“Unfamiliar foods are becoming more popular. With all the TV shows and magazines, the foodie population is expanding rapidly, and everyone likes to brag about trying exotic flavors.

“Our customers love to talk about the flavors and how they may have never experienced them before.”

At Cuba Libre, a small chain with units in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Orlando, and Washington D.C., average dinner tickets run about $50 and tapas dishes are a big part of the mix.

“I think people really want to try a lot of things and they really appreciate a constant flow of food instead of waiting 15 minutes for the appetizer,” says corporate chef and partner Guillermo Pernot.

Pernot says some of the most popular dishes are the four ceviches on the menu—scallop, shrimp, tuna and crab with smoked cheddar cheese. Other small plates include Buñuelos de Espinaca, which are spinach and Manchego cheese puffs with goat cheese-ranch sauce, Escabeche de Hongos, which is grilled, citrus-marinated fresh mushroom salad, and Tostones, or twice-fried crisp green plantains with garlic-mojo dipping sauce.

Pernot also says that tapas dishes are an important part of Cuba Libre’s banquet business, which has increased more than 300 percent in the last year at the Orlando location.

“We send several small plates out in waves with about three or four of each going out at one time,” he says. “I think people are looking for variety more than anything else.”

Kim Heideman, chef owner of Union Bistro in Castle Rock, Colorado, agrees.

“I think tapas are popular because it gives you the freedom to try multiple dishes and not just pick one. They are great to share with groups,” but Heideman also says there could be other reasons for choosing tapas. “Guests are eating smaller portions as well as a dietary choice, or perhaps because of a down economy.”

Best-selling items at Union Bistro include crispy green beans with green onion-roasted garlic aioli, Thai flatbread with grilled chicken on peanut sauce with Asian vegetable salad, Miso-glazed pork wings, Philly flatbread, Idaho nachos with jalapeño, bacon and chive, and topped with white cheddar fondue, tuna tartar with cucumber, caviar and chips and Italian eggrolls caprese-style with pesto. 

Heideman says all new menu items are run as specials several times to receive feedback from guests and adjust accordingly. Most of her menu items are seasonal because, “I think keeping menus changing, seasonal and fresh is what guests look for and expect. Cost-conscious items and creativity are what keep restaurants moving forward.” 

According to a recent Technomic report, college students are embracing tapas in a big way. Roughly half of students, 49 percent, enjoy the flavors and ingredients in Spanish food or tapas. Technomic also reports that tapas-style bites are catching on in hotel lobby lounges and living rooms.

“Small plates and interesting cocktails allow a group of people to come together over food, contributing to a lively, interactive atmosphere for the entire hotel,” according to the Hotels Consumer Trend Report, which Technomic released in May 2011. Some of the hotels that have added small plates include The Four Seasons in Naples, Florida, the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner in McLean, Virginia, W Hotels throughout the U.S. and The JW Marriott in Los Angeles.

Mary Chapman, who is director of product innovation at Technomic, says that small plates are gaining ground with chain restaurants as well.

“I see plenty of examples of really diverse chains doing small plates and snacks, like BJ’s, P.F. Chang’s, Mimi’s, and T.G.I. Fridays has Tapa-Tizer Skewers, which is very interesting.”

Hayden of Mintel agrees. “Romano’s Macaroni Grill calls their happy-hour food menu Italian tapas, and even though there are Italian words for tapaslike snacks, they use the word tapas. That means it has some level of recognition to restaurant patrons.”

According to Mintel research, the number of tapas items on menus throughout the U.S. grew 9 percent from 2010 to 2011, with most of the growth coming in fine and upscale restaurants.

Matt Erickson, who is vice president of restaurant operations at sbe, the Los Angeles-based luxury hospitality and lifestyle company that launched the culinary concept Cleo at the Redbury at Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles in 2010, says his tapas customers are evenly split between men and women. He also thinks that tapas will continue their migration to other ethnic cuisines.

“We feel as though we’re ahead of what’s going to be the next huge trend in restaurants. The traditional one-entrée/three-course experience will always have its place, but shared plates have delivered a new, high-energy style that’s been very well received,” he says.

“You’re also seeing a number of cuisines from all over the world embracing the shared-plate approach.” 

As for Cleo’s most popular tapas dish?
“Of course our Brussels sprouts stand out, which have become the hottest dish in LA, but we’ve found that every item on the menu has a following amongst our clientele. You can come to Cleo four nights in a row and have a different culinary experience each night, and that really sets us apart,” Erickson says.