“What do you recommend?” is the most common restaurant question in the universe. Believe it or not, it’s not that easy to answer in many restaurants. Struggling restaurants almost always have trouble with consistency in the kitchen, making this a dreaded question for servers. Successful restaurants like Cheesecake factory have a long track record of living up to their recommendations. I’ve had their Crusted Chicken Romano in Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, and Winter Park, Florida; excellent each time. I Googled “best dishes at Cheesecake Factory” and came up with pages of recommendations; Louisana Chicken Pasta, Orange Chicken, Pasta DaVinci, the desserts, etc. Not that your restaurant is ever going to catch up to Cheesecake Factory, but, if you really can’t recommend a signature dish to your customers with confidence that they’ll be blown away by, you’re in trouble. What is your signature dish; THAT dish?
Cooking principles. The kitchen is the heart of a restaurant and, unfortunately, a high percentage of kitchens have regular heart attacks. The problem I see is that kitchens across the country are staffed with food assemblers; the kitchen’s version of the “order taker” in the front of the house. They saute, grill, heat up food in the oven, and populate the window with orders that were placed 10-20 minutes before. But they do NOT know how to cook! One of my signature dishes at Tequila Sunrise was the Seafood Crepe Pacifica. It was an invention – a variation on a French preparation, Fillet au Poivre in a cream sauce – so it wasn’t available anywhere else although it has since been copied. The most common mistake the cooks made was before the order came in. The sauce needed to be thickened with a roux. I threatened to fire them all if they didn’t cook the roux long enough. To them, as soon as the roux became stiff (butter and flour), it seemed logical to take it off the stove. After I explained that the gluten had to be cooked out so the sauces wouldn’t taste chalky, and an almond smell was the queue to take it off the stove, [and, again, they would be fired the next time they didn’t follow through] everything was fine. Long story short, they couldn’t be trusted to make a spectacular dish until they knew what MADE it spectacular. Train your cooks to be chefs.
Qualities of a signature dish. Each needs to be thoroughly vetted, going through the process of menu planning. A signature dish can start as a chef’s special, an even better way of gauging popularity before going on the menu. Star dishes must have presentation, taste, value, and uniqueness.
Presentation. All signature dishes have a head-turning ability. Try to draw attention to it through the presentation. Go all out. How many times have you ordered something that you saw pass by on the way to another table? Cafe Emunah in Fort Lauderdale has a mixed beet salad (the Arizal) that’s topped with a tall stack of fried Vidalia onions. I ordered it just on appearance, and I was in love with the taste. A signature dish should be visually exciting. The aforementioned Crusted Chicken Romano is served raised on a bed of pasta with a pink sauce. It looks like a lot of food and it looksdelicious, as all signature dishes should.
Taste. Obviously, a signature dish should taste extraordinary. What is the flavor profile? Chef Angus An states, “It’s more about tasting a dish and understanding the flavor.” I try to imagine who I know would favorite this dish. I abhor steak and sweets, but crave savory foods like shellfish, salmon, and fried white fish. I have a brother-in-law who loves steaks, creams, and sweets. While a lot more research is to be done on what people crave, it’s important to classify the type of client for each dish and not cross flavor profiles that don’t mix. A good example of this is a Salmon in Mole Poblano with fruit salad that was rarely ordered at one restaurant I managed. While it looked nice, the fruit crashed the whole dish.
Value. The customer will have a value in mind for what a dish is worth. This value is thought of in advance. If you’re lucky enough to run a dish to a nearby table, and the customer says, “I gotta have that!”, good for you. However, price points are born in the minds of customers who often have not seen nor tasted the product. The customer is logically influenced by what is in his pocket to pay for the dish. And all that is OK, what you want is that dish that draws people out time after time. And then to populate the menu with as many such dishes as possible, as Cheesecake Factory has. The key is to find the customers’ price point and craft a recipe that gives you a food cost that you can live with. Once people are hooked, you can subtly increase the margins. But be careful. Watch your p-mixes after a price increase. If sales drop off for that item, the clientele is telling you that you’re exceeding their price point. A good hint that the public will pay a little more is if the number of dishes sold of the signature item has consistently increased over the last 6 months. [While price increases drive down costs, keep in mind they drive down volume IF your business is not showing the growth to qualify the increase.]
Uniqueness. This is the least important signature dish attribute but deserves a note. A Shrimp and Morel Pasta Stew will draw more attention than your Signature Burger. Like any trend, he who is at the start of a trend is better off than the guy who gets into the game late. It’s better to be a trendsetter than try to make a better burger, although that doesn’t hurt. Not everything on the menu can be a signature dish.
Not all diners are risk takers. My brother ordered a hamburger at a famous eatery on Bourbon Street in New Orleans [did I forgive him?]. But unique offerings do help to draw in that independent eater, the foodie, who usually sways the group. The foodie is to the restaurant industry what the independent voter is to national elections. Which is why THAT SIGNATURE DISH can make or break you.