Menus across the nation are shrinking in an attempt to cut overheads and brace against rising costs. Here's what restaurants are choosing to jettison and how it's helping them to keep sailing
Hot on the heels of Covid and Brexit, the hospitality industry is being asked to weather yet another perfect storm of adverse trading conditions. Spiralling overheads (exacerbated by the recently announced cut in the government's Energy Bill Relief Scheme for business), the recruitment crisis and a customer base with diminishing disposable income due to the cost of living crisis does not a happy new year make.
Some businesses have already cut wages and opening hours in response, while others are looking to adapt their menus in order to manage food costs while still maintaining an enticing offering that will attract price-conscious customers as they navigate the current tempest.
"As of January we're running a shorter, sharper menu," says restaurateur Sam Harrison of Sam's Riverside in Hammersmith, London. "If you're running a shorter menu, everything comes in fresh every day and there's less choice and less wastage. Historically you would build some wastage into your costings, but if those costings and margins are reduced, it's going to get harder and harder to build in that wastage."
At Copper and Ink in Blackheath, London, chef and co-owner Tony Rudd has recently reduced the number of options on the restaurant's fixed-price menu (two courses for £35 and three for £45) from 12 dishes to nine, with three starters, three mains and three desserts. "It's helped cut food waste, reduced the amount spent developing the dishes, and streamlined prep and service. As a result, we can spend more time on each dish ensuring better quality for a better price. This goes for our wine list too. Rather than a huge wine cellar and lots of open bottles, we've cut the list in half and reduced our ‘by the glass' offering to just those on our £70 seven-course taster menu."
What's off the menu?
Cost was not the sole motivating factor behind Tom Kerridge's recent decision to launch a £15 for two courses and £22.50 for three set lunch menu at Kerridge's Bar & Grill in London and the Coach in Marlow. "A number of months ago we could see what was happening and what was coming round the corner," he says. "Staff need to feel a sense of worth and belonging and that can be delivered through a busy and vibrant restaurant. We decided to put a set lunch menu on to help create an energy that guests like being a part of and staff like delivering."
Chefs and restaurateurs are not just reappraising the size of their menus, but the ingredients that go into them, too. Roberta Hall-McCarron has introduced a set lunch menu at her flagship Edinburgh restaurant the Little Chartroom. Served Friday to Sunday, the no-choice, three-course menu costs £34 and might include the likes of braised beef shin served with parsley and potato dumplings. "It is a way for us to use up the cuts of meat from animals that we didn't use on our à la carte menu. This is a great way to give our guests a good meal at an affordable price," she says.
We can spend more time on each dish ensuring better quality for a better price
Hall-McCarron is also rotating the fish option at the restaurant between hake, cod, plaice and skate, depending on the price and availability, reducing the amount of caviar and serving smaller portions of prime cuts of meat, bulking out the dish with a cheaper braised element. With fewer staff on hand, Hall-McCarron is also looking at the fine detail of the day-to-day running of the kitchen.
"We used to bake sourdough and treacle soda bread, but we have recently stopped doing the sourdough as it is a time-consuming process. We still bake the soda bread but have tried to elevate that by serving warm individual rolls to all of our guests, whereas before we used to serve room temperature slices of each bread."
Kerridge says that, as a produce-led operation, ingredients costs have always been at the top end for all his sites, but he is now looking at cheaper alternatives from his suppliers. "Things like mince are more readily available and cheaper fish or vegetable-based main courses have allowed us to still work with our uncompromised viewpoint on cooking but celebrating more budget-friendly ingredients. The à la carte hasn't changed, but that is not to say that perhaps in the future things might get tighter and we have to take another look at it, but it's not something we are scared of doing."
While reducing menu choice and the number and amount of more expensive ingredients is a sensible decision from an operator's viewpoint in the current climate, there could be a risk of taking things too far from a customer's point of view and impacting on perceived value. Careful planning and clever design is the answer to a successful reduced menu, according to Rudd.
"Our structure is always a vegetarian – or can be vegan – pescatarian and meat-based starter, and the same for our main. We have a cheese course, a light, often vegan pre-dessert and a rich, decadent dessert. From these nine dishes we can offer an amazing seven-course taster menu. By designing dishes to be dairy-free, we cover one intolerance, and our menu is gluten-free by design, ticking a box for many other diners. If you have a reduced menu, change it regularly to ensure guests can come back in a future month if there's nothing for them on there now, or come back every month if they love what you do."
The à la carte hasn't changed, but that is not to say that perhaps in the future things might get tighter
At Sam's Riverside, Harrison has a different set of customer requirements to consider. "To me, a brasserie always has a fairly varied menu and people come and dine with us two, three or four times a week. They might pop in on a Tuesday night because they can't be bothered to cook or a Saturday night because it's a special occasion, so you are picking menu items for different occasions. Whereas before we probably changed the menu every six weeks, we're going to have to change it a lot, so that if you're coming back every week there's something new."
For Kerridge, however, his initial concerns about reduced choice didn't materialise. "I think the guest comes to you because of your offering in terms of level and standard, not in terms of a huge amount of choice. I think we have moved on from the days of lots and lots of main courses; people buy into a quality and a standard and are quite happy to eat something that is good, rather than have the option of lots of things that aren't so good."
In addition to resizing menus, chefs and restaurateurs are also having to consider repricing menus to pass on at least some of the increased costs they are facing to customers. Rudd acknowledges that a fine balancing act is required in order not to put off customers.
"Our taster menu, which was previously £50 for five courses, is now £70 but we've added two courses. This looks like great value, and it really is considering the quality, but the reality is, we're not offering more food, just more courses. Talk to your guests, be transparent with what you're facing and many will understand the situation. As more restaurants realise they need to change their prices to survive, the public will soon understand that this is the new norm."
Kerridge agrees. "There is a great fear with all of us that as prices go up for restaurants from their suppliers, that has to be passed onto the guest. At the same point, the guest has less spending power. It is like two poles being pulled apart, and I don't think there is a lot we can do about that. As a business, if you continue to absorb the cost and start going into the red and the guests start to reduce anyway, you will find yourself in an incredibly vulnerable position. I think the industry needs to stand strong. We have to put ourselves into a position where we charge the correct price to exist as an honest and true profession."
While operators would love to see government assistance in the form of a temporary VAT reduction, a sensible energy cap for businesses, restructuring of rates and a reduction in fuel duty to reduce transport costs, there is an acceptance that the hospitality industry will have to rely on its own ingenuity, including creative menu management once again.
"Can it get any worse? Hang on, I said that last year!" jokes Rudd. "Last year was definitely the worst year I've ever been in business, and it's not going to get much easier soon, but it feels like we're emerging from the worst of the pandemic and the cost of living crisis. The hospitality industry has always been resilient and innovative, and if any sector can survive, it's us."
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