Part of your balancing act as a restaurant operator is to find ways to cut costs, increase margins and sell for more money—all in the current climate of runaway inflation, supply-chain challenges and labor issues. It’s no simple task. Clearly, a new approach to menu optimization is necessary.
Managing food costs is on the mind of 90% of operators, according to Datassential.1 More than half (54%) are meeting the challenge by raising menu prices, and 48% are reducing the menu size. But there are other ways to finesse the menu and still present flavor and value to your customers.
Find discreet ways to scale back more expensive ingredients without making the menu look anemic. For example, as a labor-saving move for one student dining food station at Michigan State University, “Instead of offering a selection of several proteins and three sides and a sauce, the team scaled down the menu to include one protein, available in a grain bowl, as a salad or as a wrap.” said Chef Kurt Kwiatkowski. “This allowed one person to batch cook the protein and come out and help the other worker serve it in whichever form the customer wanted.”2
When you choose to expand the menu, find ways to balance your profitable ingredients with minimal new ingredients. At Tucson, Arizona, chain Eegee’s, a new chicken dish was born with just one new ingredient. The menu features grinders, subs and salads. For a summer 2022 special, by just bringing in tortillas, Eegee’s added a Buffalo Chicken Wrap with chicken strips tossed in Buffalo ranch sauce and served in a tortilla with provolone cheese, wonton skins and lettuce. 3 All ingredients except the tortilla wrap were already on the menu.
Get smart with proteins
Pull some strings with your expensive ingredients without pulling the ingredients from the menu. Chicken is a popular ingredient that’s versatile to repurpose in different ways. While the price of proteins rises, chicken prices have not been increasing as much as fish or beef.3
A new chicken or turkey sandwich does not have to call upon an entire pristine poultry breast. Consider how Panera Bread leverages whole-bird utilization across their menu by using both breast and thigh meat across different dishes. For example, their Smokehouse BBQ Chicken Sandwich features breast meat, while the Teriyaki Crunch Bowl and the Asian Crunch Salad both feature thigh meat.
The 10-unit Wing It On! chain switched to a whole-bird strategy in late 2020 and soon began selling thigh wings.4 But it was Wingstop, which also turned to chicken thigh meat, that made thigh business popular when it launched virtual brand Thighstop in June 2021. Just two months later, Wingstop folded the Thighstop menu into its Wingstop fare and now offers thigh bites on its menu.5
Meanwhile, Wing it On! has found ways to use smaller amounts of chicken with its recent menu addition of Dump’wings, which are fried dumplings with a chicken or vegetable filling.6
Price for profitability
You can justify charging more for a dish if the consumer sees the value, especially health-conscious consumers with a sustainability ethos. According to Nandini Roy Choudhury, Client Partner Food and Beverage at Future Market Insights, “Younger generations are willing to pay higher prices for healthy meals specifically tied to buzzwords such as GMO-free, all-natural or organic.”7 Additionally, 75% of consumers are willing to pay more for antibiotic-free meat.8
Therefore, ensure you clearly communicate the claims your customers are looking for, such as free range, no antibiotics ever and all-veggie fed, on your menu, signage and website.
Also, don’t be afraid to draw guests in the door with a popular menu item as a loss leader like Shuckin’ Shack does with its crab balls appetizer. By leading with this popular appetizer, they hope to attract customers to return and buy other menu items that are more profitable.3
Above all, evaluate your popular ingredients to find new ways to leverage them with a focus toward menu optimization. Learn to do more with your popular proteins prepared in ways the consumer wouldn’t likely duplicate at home. They will reward you with their dining dollars.
- “The Simply Smarter Webinar: S4EP10 - The Mindset of the Modern Operator,” Datassential, May 13, 2022, https://youtu.be/gjn8jSF2FH0.
- Shee, Jody, “Managing High Volume Today,” The National Culinary Review, November/December 2021, https://www.sheefood.com/managing-high-volume-foodservice-costs.html
- Lucas, Amelia, “Restaurants are Getting Creative with Menus to Counter Soaring Food Costs,” CNBC.com, April 1, 2022, https://www.cnbc.com/2022/04/01/restaurants-are-getting-creative-with-menus-to-counter-soaring-food-costs.html
- Thomas, Patrick and Haddon, Heather, “Pricey Chicken Puts Thighs on Restaurant Menus,” Foxbusiness.com, Jan. 2, 2022, https://www.foxbusiness.com/economy/pricey-chicken-puts-thighs-on-restaurant-menus
- Lalley, Heather, “Wingstop Rolls Its Thighstop Virtual Brand Onto Its Main Menu,” Restaurant Business, Sept. 8, 2021, https://www.restaurantbusinessonline.com/operations/wingstop-rolls-its-thighstop-virtual-brand-its-main-menu
- Thorn, Bret, “Menu Tracker: New Items From McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell,” Nations Restaurant News, May 20, 2022, https://www.nrn.com/menu/menu-tracker-new-items-mcdonald-s-burger-king-and-taco-bell/gallery?slide=6
- Choudhury, Nandini Roy, “Seven Restaurant Trends That Will Define 2022,” Modern Restaurant Management, Feb. 4, 2022, https://modernrestaurantmanagement.com/seven-restaurant-trends-that-will-define-2022/
- Zogby, John, “Antibiotic-Free Labels are Important to Two-Thirds of Americans When Buying Meat—and Data to Back-up Claims is Paramount, a New Poll Shows,” Forbes.com, Feb. 11, 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnzogby/2021/02/11/antibiotic-free-labels-are-important-to-two-thirds-of-americans-when-buying-meat---and-data-to-back-up-claims-is-paramount-a-new-poll-shows/?sh=23dedb673c2b