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.
Instagram has transformed photos as a means of communication, with food ranking high among Instagram’s content leaderboard. Many restaurants have upped their food presentation to make their product more ‘sharable’ on social media, but some places have gone a step further. Popping up more and more are socially-built restaurants—mostly dessert-focused eateries that were literally built for Instagram.
How exactly can a restaurant be built for Instagram? Simple:
1. Create visually stunning food and backdrops that encourage guests to share photos of your food with their friends.
2. Reap the rewards of free marketing when those friends come in through your doors, buy your product, photograph it and share it with their friends.
3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 as the cycle continues. Your food, while serving as the financial crux of your business, takes a back seat to the social sharing experience.
Thinking about it from a business perspective, the move makes a great degree of sense. Here’s why:
Dessert is a natural haven for photogenic, brightly-colored food
Sprinkles, M&M’s and cotton candy are among the most visually interesting edible items on camera. Preparing a burger with fresh meat, cheese and produce to produce the savory equivalent of such vibrant colors is a complex, costly undertaking by comparison.
Dessert contains numerous color contrasts—chocolate and vanilla, vanilla raspberry, vanilla and caramel, etc.—as well as a multitude of unnaturally-colored products that are accepted by society as being perfectly good things to eat. Try selling a burger with bright green meat and pink buns!
Dessert is low-cost and high-margin
Desserts entail significantly lower ingredient and production costs than most of their savory counterparts, affording them lower price points to appeal to the masses and the target demographics that naturally share their food on social media.
"Making eye-catching dessert is the first step. Just as critical is informing audience members where they can go to get the same experience."
Dessert establishments are prone to higher traffic and turnover in smaller spaces
A dessert-only restaurant will feature far fewer traditional booths and tables, and skew more toward long, narrow countertops and shared tables designed for groups to congregate, eat and leave. Dessert doesn’t take as long as a normal meal [unless you have a serious sweet tooth!], again lowering the barrier to entry by posing a minimal time commitment on top of the lower price.
With higher turnover and lots of to-go business, as well as fewer kitchen and inventory requirements, dessert establishments can afford to be significantly smaller than standard restaurants while still attracting significant traffic. This opens the gates to a larger group of budding restaurateurs that wouldn’t be as prone to investing in a large amount of real estate.
There are many more built-in features that make dessert a natural candidate for socially-built restaurants, but these don’t guarantee success. So, what are successful establishments doing to stand out?
Making big, killer products
Look at any of the socially-built dessert hotspots and you will likely see enormous scoops of ice cream with generously-poured toppings [at least they look generous] and other accouterments sticking out the top and flowing from the sides of the cone, cookies or other vehicle. And yes, it tastes as good as it looks.
Bigger is better for these places. CREAM, short for Cookies Rule Everything Around Me, is a prime example of socially-built massive desserts that appeal to the eye and the palate alike. No expense is spared, because their food costs double as the marketing budget.
Designing a restaurant full of Instagram backgrounds
Making eye-catching dessert is the first step. Just as critical is informing audience members where they can go to get the same experience. The Dolly Llama in Downtown Los Angeles has this practice down pat. Every part of this small restaurant is an Instagram backdrop, complete with bright neon lighting and their hashtag splayed across the wall.
Creating a social atmosphere
Snapping food photos is always a toss-up. Some love to do it, some hate when it’s done, and some love to do it even when around those who hate when it’s done. In any case, successful socially-built establishments will push an energetic atmosphere that drives social interaction and consequent phone use. Music, board and lawn games and other forms of entertainment will push guests to engage in the ‘free’ marketing practices sought by these places.
Benjamin Brown is a seasoned restaurant writer and hospitality consultant, serving up SoCal's hottest food news and reviews.