Tag Archives: Menu Planning


13 Mar

“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.


Checklist for Planning a Menu

26 Feb

Here’s a list of considerations to review for each dish as they come up for evaluation at that critical point when it’s time to evolve the menu. So often managers forget to do one or more of these diligences when they are redesigning their menu. The menu is the key tool in driving sales and profits.

1) Menu Costing.
Any item that is being evaluated for either continuing, removing, replacing, or – in the case of new items – adding, a costing needs to be performed. This will help clarify the recipe and whether the item is economically viable.
2) Price Points.
Considering what the customer is willing to pay is integral to any successful food service business. Ask how each item will serve the public and how feasible it is to meet THEIR price point.
3) Ingredient Consolidation.
One of the most common errors in menu planning is the one-ingredient one-dish dilemma. Your sales are great but you’re constantly in danger of serving up some slimy ingredients because several of your slow movers have the one-dish problem. Your sales goals might be getting met but you have to deal with an irate customer three times a month because they bit into something rancid. Make sure your ingredients are used enough and in enough dishes.
4) POS Report on item sales.
Discontinuing or keeping a dish should never be determined emotionally. It is a question of numbers. Items that are lagging way behind in sales are best discontinued in favor of items that have a reasonable chance to sell. The objective is to drive sales higher by eliminating frogs and replacing them with potential princes.
5) Logistics.
Dishes that involve multiple steps to prepare better be driving sales higher. Difficult-to-produce items have to sell better than easier items to prepare. If it’s a pain in the butt and doesn’t pay a salary, kill it. The inverse is that if a plate is easy to produce and guaranteed popular, throw it onto the menu already.
6) Is this item a good idea?
What is our purpose with this item? What customer profile type is going to order this item? In short, this is the consideration of the public awareness of your brand. Included in this consideration is how one is going to sell the dish on the menu. Does it have a marketing hook?

Last, I’ve always found limiting the printed menu as a good idea while saving dishes with uncertain sales futures as frequent guests on the Specials Board. Specials are a good way of letting the clientele base know what kind of creative energy you have behind your brand.

Food Cost Fallacies and their costs

26 Feb

My organization redid their menu 2 months ago without doing a menu costing. It is my understanding that it has been a year or more since a menu costing was done. I found one set of menu costing files on the computer that was either old or erroneous from the start. Two crabcakes with garnish for $2.56? When was that? 1986?

So I sat down surrounded by a month’s worth of invoices and calculated each ounce of protein, garnish, dressing, etc. What I found was a wide range; spinach dip was 9% while Seafood Platter was 40%. The award winner was the add Mahi to your salad cost, 62%! Luckily the salad cost is 10%, but that’s a blend of 36%, way too high. Our goal is a true overall blend of 25% food cost.
And that’s not gonna happen. You see, if everything were equal, being the same price, the menu came in at a blend of 23%. However, there is no way you’ll ever see 23% food cost. Reasons?
1. Spinach Dip is $8, Seafood Platter is $24. You would have to sell 3 times as many spinach dips as seafood platters to offset that 40% cost, bringing it down to 25%. But, no, the SP sells about the same as the SD. SO you’re true blend is:
Spinach Dip —$0.91 —-$8.00
Seafood Plttr–$9.71—–$24.00
Ok, so your combined cost is 33.2%.
2. It gets worse. We mis-stated the true price of the spinach dip. While appetizers are in the 10-20% food cost range, we have a Happy Hour from 3 to 7 Monday-Friday when they’re 30% off. Approximately one THIRD of all apps are sold during that time. Take $8 and $8 and add it to $5.60, then divide by three. Answer; 21.60 divided by 3 = $7.20 true price of a spinach dip. [Note that the POS system rings up the 30% off price rather than backing it out as a discount.]
Thus we now have:
$10.62 divided by $31.20, a new blend of 34.0%. OK, that didn’t kill us, but you can see how the sales mix affects our food cost.
3. Without going into too much detail, the register’s P-mix (sales mix) shows that a lot of these high food cost items are in the top sellers. That shouldn’t surprise menu planners as the highest cost items are the most expensive; it takes two burgers to equal a Seafood Platter sale.
Food cost tracking. It is imperative that you know the food cost of each item on your menu, update it regularly (every 3 months at least), and that you plug in those numbers to give you your planned food cost. The goal of the kitchen manager is to get as close to that figure as possible. Each month do a spreadsheet of what you sold, item by item, multiplying it by the food cost (cost of goods) to get your true food cost. Do this when you calculate your inventory at month’s end. For example, you find your food cost should be 28.6%, but due to waste and other factors your food cost runs 30.2%. The difference – 1.6% – is your waste percentage. A kitchen manager’s bonus or lack thereof should depend on it. [Note to owners and admin folks: Never let kitchen managers do inventory unsupervised! Have your accountant or your mother-in-law double check their counting.]

Summary of food cost fallacies:
Lazy assumptions or “ballparking”. Baseball managers don’t use that logic and neither should a kitchen manager.
My $8 10%COG appetizer is going to offset my $24 40%COG dinner. Nope. You’d have to sell 3-to-one to get to a 25% blend. Then you’d still see your bottom line shrink when, oops, the waitress meant to order a Seafood Salad.
Wishful thinking. I know you feel you’re going to find that breakthrough price reduction to “make everything work out” in your P+L but that’s wrong. Be realistic.
Consider every angle. Many good ideas, mine too, have been found wanting because I and other managers failed to take something into consideration, usually an overlooked cost. My article on saving money with ketchup was a good example. Before making a change that will affect your costs and your staff’s mental health, ask yourself, what might the unintended consequences be.

No problems. Only solutions.
It can be a hair-raising experience for a kitchen manager to realize after a menu costing has been entered into the P-mix to find his goal of 25% is an impossible dream. The first positive point is that he now knows what his true best target is. The first part of getting well is knowing how sick one is in the first place. You’d be surprised how many managers have lost their jobs because they couldn’t attain food costs that no one in the organization knew were impossible! Once the cat is out of the bag, you can get to work.

Clearly the goal is to be able to blend the higher cost items with the lower cost ones to attain a 25% food cost. In order to do that with our Spin Dip/Seafood Platter axis, we’ll have to bring down the cost of the platter/spin dip 9%. [Note: I’m using these two examples because together they show the cost dynamic of the whole menu.]

Spinach Dip —$0.91 —-$7.20–12.6%
Seafood Plttr–$9.71—–$24.00–40%
9% represents $3.06 that we need to cut from the cost of these two dishes. Since the dip costs 91 cents in all, I suggest cutting something on the Seafood Platter. The SP consists of a 7 ounce Mahi fillet ($4.33), a 3 ounce crab cake ($1.57), 4 shrimp ($1.94), 4 scallops ($0.88), rice and veggies ($0.75), sauce/lemon/parsley-paprika garnish ($0.24). Be careful about taking something off the plate. My first thought was to take off the Mahi or drastically reduce that while stealing a shrimp and a scallop away. Be careful. The customer may have a negative response, usually by taking 100% of their money elsewhere. I think the popularity of the dish is in its value and variety. Thus, I hesitate to take anything off of the plate. So here’s what I recommend and why…
The fresh Mahi is too expensive for our price range. Recently we went to fresh fish. The previous chef was buying frozen, pre-portioned Mahi, Tilapia, Salmon, and Grouper. The response to the Grouper and Tilapia were very negative while the Salmon and Mahi got almost no complaints. Grouper was the most returned item. But Mahi freezes well. The price for IQF frozen Mahi portions is currently $6.26 per lb. “Planks” or filleted Mahi frozen with the skin on is $4.99. With the yield on fresh Mahi, we are paying $9.90 per lb. I recommend we use the plank Mahi, cut them into 5 oz portions to reduce the Mahi cost to $1.56 on the Seafood Platter plate. That reduces our cost $2.76, which brings us only 30 cents away from our goal by only taking 2 ounces of fish off the plate. If the fillet is cut correctly, butterflying it to cook faster and cover more area, the change is nearly invisible to the customer. Reducing the shrimp and scallops by one each saves $0.70 or $0.48 for one shrimp and $0.22 for one scallop. You have 40 cents to work towards increasing the rice and vegetable portions to make the seafood stand out more on the plate [Note: By this I mean, using the fillers to raise the crabcake, Mahi, and shellfish higher on the plate. When the center plate items are closer to the customers eyes, even if it’s an inch or two, they look much bigger. We’ve been getting compliments for increasing portions while in many cases we’ve done the opposite. In the Fish and Chips, for example, we stack the fish on the fries, making it look like more. Think vertically…]

So I recommend going with a reduced price Mahi portion at 5 ounces, reducing by one shrimp and one scallop, and beefing up the accompaniments by 3 ounces to make up the weight differential. So our $9.71 albatross is now a manageable $6.25!

The new cost is a cool 26%. Can you do any better? Yes!
Mahi is a commodity fish harvested in November and December. You can sign a deal with your purveyor (for this I prefer Cheney Brothers if you’re in Florida) in November to purchase your yearly allotment from them. They will hold the winter commodity price all year long. That’s a range of $3 to $4 per lb. You can sell that all day long.
Update: One last point here. Using a “blend” of costs to reach your goal is really a last resort. Notice how we brought the cost of the Seafood Platter in line with our 25% goal for EACH item. That won’t be as easy with the Prime Ribs, the Babyback Ribs, and other high-cost dishes. In the event it’s just going to be a high-cost item, I recommend taking it off the menu if it isn’t helping drive sales. 
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