Shared plates and smaller portions deliver cost benefits, happy guests.
By Margaret Sheridan , Senior Editor
Tapas and other small plates celebrate the unexpected and turn dinners into sit-down cocktail parties. They upend the familiar progression of courses (appetizer, entrée, sides and dessert) with unstructured fun and a sense of endless possibility for both chefs and diners. Guests can indulge in new experiences while operators gain flexibility, creativity and the ability to leverage existing inventory.
Shareable starters are favorites with diners. Cascal Restaurant serves queso fundido with smoked mushrooms, poblano chiles and Oaxaca cheese.
Two small-plate ideas from Chicago: beef and watermelon at Wave (above); a tasting of halibut with peapods at X/O.
Higher check averages, the opportunity to introduce new dishes and flavors plus tie-ins to wines, cocktails and beverages also are boons to operators. Instead of ordering an $18 entrée, a guest may instead choose two to three plates, at $7 or $8 each. Add a beverage and dessert, and check averages rise.
“Small plates are crowd-pleasers,” says James Porter, chef-owner of Tapino Kitchen & Wine Bar in Scottsdale, Ariz. “They let customers have their own tasting party.”
Michael Whiteman agrees that small plates encourage interaction among guests. “The act of passing plates is participatory. It gets people involved,” says the president of Joseph Baum & Michael Whiteman Co., a restaurant consultancy in New York City. “For operators in the business of small plates and wines by the glass, there are good margins [to be made],” he adds.
Degree of Engineering
Half of all items on breakfast, lunch and dinner menus at Wave in the W Chicago Lakeshore are designed as sharing plates, according to Kristine Subido, executive chef. A small-plates enthusiast, she believes most items can be scaled to fit the format. Plus, the act of resizing them provides a creative outlet for chefs weary of routine, says Subido.
Most importantly, however, smaller portions appeal to customers, especially families. She offers French toast as an example. A standard order of five slices is priced at $9. Resizing it, she serves three mini-triangles of toast, sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar, with sides of strawberry butter, chocolate dipping sauce and whipped cream for $5. The dish, with skewers for dipping, becomes an activity for kids, and parents like the smaller portion. Such creativity requires no extra cost. “Everything—chocolate sauce, berries, whipped cream—is already in the kitchen. I just repackage it.” Subido says.
Luke Patterson, executive chef at the 115-room La Valencia Hotel in La Jolla, Calif., encourages his cooks to experiment as they create small dishes for the 35-item menu for the La Sala lounge. Ceviche martini, served in a stemmed glass, includes three kinds of seafood. Tortilla Espaola, a classic breakfast egg and potato omelet, comes garnished with upscale touches such as caramelized onions in balsamic reduction. Butternut squash, typically a side dish, appears as filling for ravioli. “The average customer orders two to three plates,” he says, each priced from $6 to $12. Though food costs run 32%, Patterson explains that small plates are profitable, especially when cocktails and sangria are merchandised as tie-ins.
Small plates entice customers to order more with impulse-priced portions and mix-and-match menus. “People are closet nibblers,” says Mark Liberson, co-owner of X/O Chicago. “The younger crowd gets caught up in excitement.” Older clientele, though, are less inclined to over-order and instead use small plates for portion control and a less-expensive meal.
Crispy Lamb Riblets from The Fort.
Crab Stack at Roppongi, Palm Springs, Calif.
But too many customers with diminished appetites can threaten the check average, says Liberson. The solution is better menu management. If there are too many starches and not enough proteins, he explains, people want less. Whiteman agrees. “In small plates, guests don’t have a bread basket or bowl of pasta to fill up on.”
People can eat more protein without feeling full, adds Porter. His menu at Tapino highlights proteins with sauces and vegetables as garnishes. He servesstarchy vegetables such as Jerusalem artichokes and some grains as sides. Though food costs are high, about 37%, the average check is $38. To ease expenses, he uses techniques such as steaming, braising and poaching to utilize economical cuts of meat. The concentration on proteins has not hurt business nor has the popularity of low-carb diets. Since opening the 175-seat restaurant last August, Porter reports that weekend business has nearly doubled to 300 nightly. “We’re the only game in town [for small plates].”
Like dégustation menus, small plates mean high labor costs versus food costs, says Liberson. “You need a menu with balance and a variety of high-end proteins and less-costly items. Food costs must be relative to the bottom line.”
Small plates can add challenges, agree Porter and Liberson. Depending on how they’re designed, they can be labor-intensive. The faster pace of serving and clearing tables means more work for waiters and dishwashers, larger inventory of plates, glasses and silverware. It requires a flexible cooking staff trained to run several stations. It demands waitstaff with good communication skills and stamina. Instead of announcing one entrée, servers make multiple appearances. Porter hires experienced employees because there’s more interaction with guests. “You’re not delivering appetizers, mains and desserts, and then the customers go home. You get guests unfamiliar with the concept who need more explanations. The pressure turns the server into a food tour guide. Customers must trust his directions.”
In her experience with tapas concept Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba! for Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Divisional Executive Chef Susan Weaver values simplicity in executing a successful small-plates operation. “If someone fails, it’s because they’re too ambitious. Keep things simple. You can’t do 60 complicated little plates.” Luke Patterson learned the same lesson. “Early on, we offered paella as a small plate. Customers compared their portion to their friend’s. If someone got an extra mussel or shrimp, we’d hear about it. Plating became too time-consuming. We dropped the item.”
Queso Fundido With Smoked Mixed Mushrooms, Poblano Chiles and Oaxaca Cheese
Serrano Ham and Tomato Bread
Crispy Lamb Riblets
Looking for candidates to downsize? Rethink and repackage menu items, advise Dean Small and Danny Bendas, partners in Synergy Consulting Group, foodservice advisors in Laguna Niguel, Calif. More big thoughts about little plates:
- Enrich dressings and dips such as tapanade or hummus with ethnic condiments, minced vegetables, dried tomatoes, roasted garlic, mustard, toasted chopped nuts or seeds. Use as spreads on flatbreads, corn chips, tortillas, won tons, pita chips and crostini.
- Offer flights of soups in mugs or cocktail glasses, each with an appropriate nosh such as toasted bagel or pita chips, cheese-flavored crackers or flatbreads.
- Wrap sliced cured meats or sausage around fresh or dried fruit, breadsticks or stalks of asparagus or green beans. Add dipping sauces.
- Create a sampler plate of three cheeses. Pair each with a bite such as olives, nuts, mini-toasts or crackers, dried fruit chips or slices of fresh fruit.
- Engage the eye in the experience. Shop for unusual shapes of crockery, plates, trays, bowls, platters, glassware, serving pieces, skillets, and casseroles. Instead of bamboo skewers, try a sprig of fresh rosemary, stalks of lemon grass or sugar cane, or chopsticks.
- Leverage the food experience with an array of unusual wines, cocktails and beverages to build sales.