The art of plating has gone hand-in-hand with the craft of cooking for ages, but presentation is more important as ever in the restaurant world. The reason why can be summed up with a simple, yet alluring phrase: free marketing.
As rude as it may be at times, guests that obsessively photograph their food at the table are essentially handing you cash every time they snap and share a picture. Social media marketing can cost you big time; CPM [cost per mil, or cost per thousand impressions] may only be a few dollars, but think about how often guests can share photos of your food, to all of their friends and followers. If you want to reach the same number of people, those dollars add up fast.
With this in mind, some restaurants may want to encourage people to post their food photos on social media. There’s a few fun ways to do this…
Make your food beautiful
Seems like a no-brainer, but food that’s pleasing to the eye will not only be viewed as more delicious, but will inspire guests to take out those smartphones. No ingredient changes needed; all that may need to be done is some simple rearrangements on the plate. Follow some simple steps to do this:
Add color, depth and height
Just like any piece of artwork, food is enhanced with color. Radishes, carrots and herbs are easy ways to add vivid color to many savory dishes. A contrasting sauce, dabs of oil across the plate or a smear of spread are more common practices that chefs employ.
Depth and height are catalysts for social media-worthy food. Fries stacked log cabin-style, rack of lamb with crisscrossed bones and sandwiches with one half peeking over the other are all methods to add something special to traditionally two-dimensional items.
Use interesting plates and glassware
If you’re in the market for these materials, you may consider spicing things up beyond the basic circular plate and tumbler glass. Serving items that allow photos to capture more food and less ceramic are always preferable. Asymmetrical bowls, for example, can help capture photos of soup and salad. Specialty cocktails in specialty glasses command a premium presence.
Keep aspect ratios in mind
For the non-photographer, aspect ratio is the photo’s width-to-height ratio. Instagram, for example, works using square photos, or a 1:1 aspect ratio. This means that ‘rectangular’ items, such as three sliders and a basket of fries presented in one long row, are difficult to fit within the frame. A chef may want to consider presenting the sliders in a triangular pattern with the fries in the center or on one side.
Beer flights are another example. Bars will often serve beers in one long row, whereas shifting to a more square display cold capture more of the product in a shot.
Own a hashtag
Perhaps most important in your efforts to create a social media buzz is being able to monitor the results. How else are you going to know if the time and energy you’re dedicating is paying off? Come up with a hashtag and promote it around your restaurant—entryway, menus, table tents, receipts and other touch points are all prime real estate. Keep the following in mind when creating a hashtag.
By encouraging guests to use your hashtag when posting, they’re self-sorting their posts directly into a virtual folder that you can open up and monitor whenever you want. This approach to marketing is free and convenient…not a common find.
Then there’s the idea of creating social media contests to promote this marketing effort even further. That, however, is a conversation for another time.
Not every menu item is going to be a best-seller. It’s reasonable to expect your signatures to outpace your lesser-known dishes, and for newer items to take a while to catch on. But the dynamic between haute plates and their not-so-popular counterparts goes much deeper. Some restaurants add items to their menu without expecting a sales lift at all, using them as a marketing ploy instead. Nefarious? No, there’s nothing wrong with putting an item on the menu that you can prepare but don’t expect to sell all that often. Strategic, on the other hand? Yes, absolutely.
So what’s the point of adding an item to your menu that you don’t expect to catch on? Check out several applications for this approach.
Your menu says a lot about your restaurant. In the same way that chic, modern décor defines a hip, urban feel, so too does an exotic ingredient list and fusion of worldly flavors. On the surface, these trends reflect the masses’ yearning to try new and different creations, and thus the establishments that serve salt-crusted bone marrow and grilled octopus will bring new faces through their doors.
In reality, however, many restaurant owners attest that while these intriguing items create the initial draw, most customers will revert to more traditional items when actually placing their order. So bone marrow may be a great crowd-pleaser on paper, but servers will mostly relay requests for burgers and mac ‘n’ cheese. Sure, they may be short rib burgers with a kimchi and fried jalapeno, and truffle mac ‘n’ cheese, but the items with more familiar bases will often prevail in the end.
So why add an item like bone marrow in the first place? Because if you limit your menu to the basic items, however exotic their additives may be, guests will limit their perception of your menu to be much less adventurous. In the same way that a Ferrari owner may not often take the car up to 220 mph, just knowing that the car can go that fast creates the appeal that justifies the price. Bone marrow essentially becomes an accessory, a kind of menu eye candy that lifts up everything around it, elevating the brand to demonstrate exotic appeal.
Should everyone add something like bone marrow to their menu? Definitely not—if you own a casual restaurant that thrives on good food at low prices, exotic menu additions can lead people to assume that you’re more expensive, driving down volume. On the other hand, if you’re trying to become more ‘hip and trendy,’ then maybe a novel touch to your menu can help. Just be sure that any additions align with your restaurant’s central theme, fits into your margins and that you account for sourcing, storage and staff training.
A much more typical case of menu additions comes in pricing. Adding an item that is well below, or above the average menu price [or both] is known as anchoring, and can have a positive effect when it comes to the psychology behind your customers’ ordering process.
When a customer sees entrees for $18, $17, $18, $19, $16, $29 and $17, the $29 item clearly stands out and poses little chance of being ordered. This can be a steak option amidst a lineup of burgers and sandwiches, but in any case makes every other item seem that much cheaper by comparison.
On the other hand, when the entrée list reads $38, $46, $29, $41, $42 and $39, all of a sudden that $29 item seems like a bargain. In this case, most guests may not get the $29 chicken, but because there’s a sub-$30 item on the menu, it makes the restaurant as a whole appear to be in closer reach of a more price-conscious consumer.
Both methods used simultaneously can work, just be sure not to go too extreme in either direction. An item priced too low can lower your restaurant’s brand perception [“If they make a sandwich for $8, then their $38 steak can’t be that good.”]. An item priced too high will just be taken out of the consideration set entirely [“A $95 porterhouse for two…well that just sounds silly.].
Make these additions one small step at a time and test frequently to see if they’re making an impact on your volume or sales. It’s always easier to scale back on a small change than a huge rollout.
The delivery business is booming. GrubHub, UberEats, DoorDash and countless others that venture beyond compound words have taken a dining segment ruled by pizza and expanded it to every cuisine under the sun. On the surface, delivery is an excellent opportunity that allows restaurants to sell to guests who may not have visited them in person. Add in the fact that drivers are on-demand contractors and require no additional head count and you’ve got a pretty good deal.
Delivery still isn’t for everyone, however. A number of factors exist that restaurant owners should consider before going into the delivery business.
While delivery has undoubtedly gotten trendier, it still carries a stigma that can drag down the overall image of a restaurant. While delivery aligns perfectly with most any casual restaurant, the area gets grayer as the average check rises. Steakhouse patrons may question the quality of the food at their table if they see that the restaurant also delivers. While this example is a bit extreme, it’s up to you to assess where your restaurant sits on the premium spectrum and whether delivery is a fit.
On the other end, if you have a high-volume restaurant known for a line out the door, and that line is actually part of ‘the experience,’ delivery may hurt that element, not to mention burden your staff with additional orders and slow the line to a dangerous extent.
Food quality is always at risk in a delivery setting. The longer the delivery, the longer the food sits. Temperatures cool, sheen fades and your food can go from beautiful to unappetizing before the guest can even get a chance to look at it. In most cases, presentation can never match what you’d prepare onsite, especially when you’re at the mercy of speed bumps, sharp turns and other elements that will shake around whatever’s in the back seat.
If you’re comfortable with leaving your food on the counter for a while before a server can pick it up, delivery could be a viable option. If you tolerate nothing less than dishes going out the moment they’re ready, you may not want your food sitting in the back of a car for however long it takes to get to your guests.
Food delivery services can be very expensive, with commissions as high as 30–40% in some cases. This, no doubt, eats significantly into your bottom line. It’s critical to assess whether food delivery will actually be profitable to the point where it’s worth your time.
Determine the minimum amount needed to justify your costs, factoring in any holdups that take place for your dine-in patrons since your kitchen staff will be taking on more orders. If these thresholds are met, then any delivery orders that take place will deliver positive returns.
If you decide to go the delivery route, keep tabs on your revenues and average checks of dine-in vs. delivery business. If you see dine-in revenue slip dramatically, it could be that your dine-in guests simply switched over to delivery. Taking commission into account, this move is not beneficial for your business.
To remedy this situation, experiment with different minimum check requirements for delivery as well as dine-in promotions and events in order to distinguish your restaurant experience while retaining delivery as an additional revenue stream rather than a substitute revenue stream.
Most delivery services have streamlined processes that allow owners and staff to manage deliveries swiftly and efficiently. Even so, take note of the time it actually takes you to manage your deliveries and whether that’s affecting you or your staff’s ability to manage in-store operations.
Pressure on cooking staff is an ever-present factor, as is management needing to handle incoming delivery requests alongside pressing guest issues and handling the inevitable broken dish on the dining room floor. This assessment will likely be less analytical, but take time to consider whether your delivery business is truly manageable or more burdensome than it seems.
If you decide to go into delivery, monitor these factors on a regular basis. By taking a holistic look at how delivery is affecting you financially and operationally, you will be able to make beneficial, proactive decisions as needed to manage this revenue stream.
Benjamin Brown is a seasoned restaurant writer and hospitality consultant, serving up SoCal's hottest food news and reviews.