The Next Small Things – US Food Trends

23 May 2007
The Next Small Things – US Food Trends

Bite-size foods invite customers to nibble and kitchens to experiment.

This article first appeared in the 15 March 2007 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website here >>

By Kate Leahy, Associate Editor

As tasting flights, small-plate smorgasbords, ethnic eating trends and moderation-minded diets influence the ways foodservice customers dine, standard-issue meals of a single protein and two veggies are losing prominence on some menus.

"The main thing that entices people is variety," says Kevin Rathbun, chef-owner of Atlanta's Rathbun's and Krog Bar. "As long as I've been in the business, the menu formula has been 7-7-5: Seven appetizers, seven entrées and five desserts. People still do it, but what it lacks is variety."

And, as consumers have made clear, what's missing is a selection of sizes. Guests have come to expect more choices, not just in taste but also in scale of foods. Small items such as mini burgers, bite-size appetizers and tiny desserts provide more options in fewer bites, enticing consumers to order more and perhaps to return more often as well.

"We see people mixing and matching when they make up their lunch," says Bill Mitchell, senior director of national program development of corporate services for Gaithersburg, Md.-based Sodexho. The contractor has created a line of miniature desserts called Sweet Shots for grab-and-go service and is looking at expanding into scaled-down savory items.

There also can be seen some movement away from large portions. Calabasas Hills, Calif.-based The Cheesecake Factory is augmenting the generous servings for which it is known. Last summer it introduced smaller lunch specials and plans to expand the portion-controlled line this year with smaller salads billed as weight-management selections. Minneapolis-based Buca di Beppo also is offering options other than its familiar family-size or two-person plates, rolling out the Buca Mio menu of individual portions.

Paul Luttmann, executive chef for Avera McKennan Hospital and University Heath Center in Sioux Falls, S.D., thought he was playing it safe by serving generous portions at a new, 110-bed behavioral hospital with modified room service that opened last April. "Three months into it, we started hearing comments. The patients felt like we were wasting food," he recalls.

Shrink Rap

While the move away from large plates might have been spurred by enthusiastic acceptance of small plates, some restaurateurs are taking the trend further as they shrink menu items, letting guests select entrée size and make meals of first courses alone.

Aptly named Minnies, which opened in Chicago last summer, combines 1940s lunch-counter décor with a menu of bite-size burgers, sandwiches such as beef tenderloin with Dijon-cognac sauce and barbecued pulled pork, and butterscotch milkshakes.

"It's not so much that menu items are smaller," says founder Jonathan Segal. "It's more that guests have the freedom to order more things." Segal also notes that flavor and richness can be emphasized in small portions without being overbearing. Still, he does admit that much of the reason behind serving small foods lies in the novelty factor. "At the end of the day, people are having fun and it's cute."

Like Segal, Pastry Chef Sue McCown, who opened Coco La Ti Da in Seattle last November, thinks small when she serves savory items such as Candy Pork Sliders. Made with pulled pork braised with star anise and a splash of tequila and served on baby brioche buns with chile-orange mustard, the sliders are among the bite-size savory items on a menu that predominantly sells desserts. Her reasoning for serving smaller sizes is less about nostalgia and more about practicality: Offering a larger, more extensive selection of savory items would conflict with her positioning as a dessert restaurant and lounge.

"I think it's a dangerous territory for me personally. If it gets too complicated in that area, then it's beyond my capacity," McCown says.

For Brent Hammer, executive chef at The Restaurant at Platinum in Las Vegas, negotiating plate size had a lot to do with how he likes to eat when he dines out. "I tend to enjoy eating tapas-style," he says, explaining how he came to design a menu on which every dinner entrée is offered in two sizes: regular and half-size portions billed as "micro" plates.

Although an almost identical amount of labor goes into making small or large dishes, Hammer doesn't see it burdening the kitchen. As for check average, Hammer suspects the average check is higher with size options as people are encouraged to design their own tasting menus.

This style also appeals to the wide spectrum of Las Vegas visitors. "There are different tastes everywhere. There's always going to be the person who wants the 24-ounce rib-eye and the person who wants [more variety and smaller dishes]."

Like Hammer, Chicago-based caterers The Hearty Boys took the partners' eating preferences into consideration when designing soon-to-open Frill restaurant. Its menu is heavily built around hors d'oeuvres and classic cocktails.

"We eat a lot of hors d'oeuvres for dinner ourselves," explains co-owner Dan Smith. "We think that the best part of the party is the hors d'oeuvres. Because they are bite-size, you can have a whole range of textures and flavors in an hour."

Frill won't need extensive silverware as most food is intended for a hands-on approach. Smith sees the restaurant filling a niche that exists between bars and full-service restaurants. "There always is a place for the traditional restaurant," he explains. "This will be at the other end of the spectrum for people who want a lot of different things."

Just (Mini) Desserts

One thing is clear with small offerings: No one is promoting tiny vegetable sides. Dishes that make it as minis tend to be rich and indulgent. And while savory items such as burgers work largely due to the novelty effect, small desserts entice with accessibility both in terms of size and price point.

Irvine, Calif.-based Claim Jumper, with its 2-pound Motherload cake, never has been known for skimping on dessert portions. Yet the chain has added crème brÁ»lée and cupcakes that guests can eat in one or two bites for $2.95. They're now the chain's top-selling desserts.

Dayparts also influence dessert-purchase decisions. While Antico Posto in Oak Brook, Ill. (a Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises property) serves full-size desserts for dinner, it serves $1 mini desserts, including a dried-cherry zuppa inglese, daily until 4 P.M. Choices are the same, only the serving vessels differ.

Sodexho's corporate division notes that lunchtime isn't ideal for customers to indulge in full-size desserts.

"In our environment, we do everything we can to draw more people into our establishments that serve a set population. That dessert purchase can really make a difference," Mitchell says.

Borrowing an idea from fine-dining restaurants, Sodexho launched a line of six mini desserts such as tiramisu, triple-chocolate raspberry mousse and mango-Key lime pie sold in glasses. The desserts, prepared and packaged in house and sold as grab-and-go items for $1.49, have been rolled out in 1,100 corporate-dining locations.

"We've seen an increase in dessert purchases after a number of years when dessert sales had been in decline," Mitchell adds. "It's a compelling reason to offer this program."

Atlanta's Rathbun recognizes that having a variety of sizes on the menu, from inexpensive mini desserts to items that he calls "second-mortgage" plates, offers variable prices that keep customers coming back to explore new tastes. "With a good dining, good value, portion-controlled experience, they can be here twice a week. That's the goal, to give them enough variety to get them coming back," he says.

And even though Rathbun's steakhouse concept, set to open in late spring, will offer serious steaks, he'll stay true to his size-conscious menu style by offering smaller options as well. "The days of big, big, big are over," he insists.

Rae's Reuben

At Rae in Philadelphia, Executive Chef Daniel Stern's extensive menu has many generous portions. But at the bar, smaller, stylized options fit better for sophisticated happy hours.

Stern crafts cocktail Reubens from rye English muffins, pastrami and sauerkraut, all made in house. The kitchen also prepares its own sauce and uses house-made pickles for garnish. Presented open-faced, Reubens are served with whole-grain mustard and horseradish.

"It's fun," remarks Stern. "We spend all this time thinking about the different things we can do. But you know, there's a lot of fun things to do with simple foods too."

The item also signlas diners that their options are open, whether they want fult-tilt food or a quick hunger fix.

Sweet, Small and Sensible

When Oklahoma City-based Sonic, America's Drive-In recently promoted Cheesecake Bites with strawberry dipping sauce as a limited-time offer, it played up the item's popular flavor profile as well as modest size.

"People are going toward a controlled indulgence," says Ann Daller, senior director of product innovation and development.

The cheesecake bites, promoted in TV ads, encouraged customers into purchasing larger, core menu items to complement the small bite and lured new customers to try Sonic.

"Obviously we get more frequency among our core customers. But with the limited-time offers, I can say that we have seen a lot of new people on our lots."

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