■ By CONSTANTINE N. KOLITSAS, Consultant
Re-engineering and implementing menu changes is serious business. It’s not just a matter of seeing something on another restaurant’s menu and adding it to your own. That’s the easy way – and the way to eventually kill your food cost, confuse your customers, and get lost in the wider market.
Successful menus are menus that are the result of input from stakeholders, feedback from consumers (formal or informal), and focused, structured training in both FOH and BOH during the implementation phase.
My preferred approach is to start by gathering the most important stakeholders together to brainstorm. Chefs, managers, a bartender, a few key servers…. These are the people that know your brand best. They interact with your customers in the most profound way, and they have an interest in the menu attracting and retaining the most amount of business (customers) possible.
The best way to start is to define exactly what the concept is in the minds of the public… What brings people to your restaurant? What does your restaurant mean to them? Take out a flip chart and a marker and ask for one-word answers to that question. If you own a diner you might see things like: fast service, value, comfort food, all day breakfast, homemade soup, amazing desserts. In the case of one restaurant I recently worked with, the words on the flip chart included: NY-style thin crust pizza, value, large portions, creativity and fresh ingredients.
Next, identify the demographics that your business is successful with and also the demographics that your business should be successful with but is missing out on with regard to market share. Are you losing the soccer moms to the Panera down the road? Are business lunch customers opting for a place that has faster turnarounds? Don’t simply give up on those lost business segments – a menu update should be a strategic opportunity to attract them back!
At this point, we usually shift gears: Everyone sits around a table with a copy of the current menu and circles the things that are problematic… Anything that is difficult to execute, is disruptive for the kitchen to produce, takes long to produce, gets mediocre reception from customers, is a profit drainer, etc. All of those items are identified and a discussion of pros and cons ensues over what to keep and what to ditch. Armed with the POS’s Product Mix Report, we look to see what items are most popular and what items don’t move. Those items that don’t move and are also problematic from a production or customer viewpoint are scratched.
Now comes the fun part. The team pulls out their homework assignment: Each has been tasked to find menus, recipes and snapchat photos of possible new menu items. Everyone presents his or her favorite item that they’ve found and the rest of the team asks the questions: Does it fit in with the concept (based on the key words we identified in the first part of this article)?, Does it attract the target demographic that we’re trying to win back?, Is it cost-effective? If the concept is an upscale bistro, some of the key phrases from the first part of the exercise may be “farm-to-table” or “gourmet”. Figs, kale or quinoa may be menu ingredients that are identified as part of the homework assignment, with recommendations that these find their way into salads for those soccer moms, or sandwiches for those hurried office workers. At the end of this discussion, the chef takes all suggestions into advisement and is tasked with presenting his or her menu suggestions. The collaborative piece is designed to give the chef an insight into what the customers are either directly or indirectly telling the front of the house, but the actual menu writing is his responsibility.
Conceiving the menu changes, however, is not where the process ends. It’s just the beginning. Even the smallest menu updates should be given the utmost importance. Before they are implemented, they should be communicated very carefully and with purpose. At the chains, menu changes (whether they are major or just small tweaks) are usually given a full “rollout” so that Back of the House staff learn how to produce them accurately and quickly, and so that Front of the House staff can communicate effectively and without error.
A rollout typically has a few components. First is the educational piece that precedes any presentation. The new menu pages should be printed or sent electronically to all FOH members. Also, I always prefer to draft a “Changes” document. This should be very succinct but thorough, identifying all new items, all items that have changed in some way, and all items that have been deleted. Let’s work backwards… It’s important to specifically communicate the deletions so that servers don’t continue to take orders for items that are no longer available. Glancing at a new menu, most staff members will easily identify those items that are new. But few will be able to immediately recognize all items that have been removed. Including them on the Changes document solves that issue.
With regard to changes, these are important so that servers can communicate to guests rather than have a guest order one of their favorite dishes and end up with something that is not exactly as he or she last had it. For example, if a dish of Rigatoni Bolognese now has a dollop of fresh whipped herbed ricotta cheese on top of it, the server should let the guest know. The guest may love the idea, but the guest may also have a dairy sensitivity or another taste preference. Educating the servers as to the changes to existing dishes allows them to be proactive, avoiding the need to send back and remake plates, which frustrates the guests, frustrates the kitchen, and costs the restaurant dollars (and the server tips).
With new items, it’s critical that the servers be extremely aware of all ingredients and are able to describe the dish completely. For example, if a lamb shank is prepared with an Indian masala rub and the guest is not prepared for this aggressive flavor profile, you could end up with a very unhappy guest.
Finally, no good menu rollout is complete without a proper tasting. I prefer to assemble as many staff members as possible at an off time and give everyone an opportunity to taste the additions to the menu. A plate or two of those dishes that are most unique to be shared by the staff is the best form of advertisement. It’s best when the items are spread out on a table, with small signs that identify the dish by name as well as its ingredients. The chef speaks to how each is prepared, and to the inspiration for the dish. Materials that include the Changes document and an Allergen sheet are distributed, along with those menu page printouts.
And as the new menu is implemented, it’s imperative that the manager go out to each table where a new item is served and ask the guest for his or her feedback. Remember to get excited about your new menu, and show that excitement to your staff and to your customers. If you do, then that excitement will spread and it will help to attract new customers as well as old customers to your restaurant.
Constantine N. Kolitsas is a restaurant consultant living in the New York tri-state area. His company, CNK Consulting, has helped numerous businesses improve their operations, develop their concepts, and increase profitability. For more information visit cnk-consulting.com or call 1-888-869-6068.