2017 Food Trends: Part 4 African Menu Strategies
So, you’ve decided to add a little African flair to your menu. Great! Now what? It might be the trending flavor at the moment, but if you don’t capitalize it properly, you may find it languishing and dying on your menu. What to do? Well, there are a few strategies to get those dishes out of your kitchen and onto the tables.
Daily specials are a great way to test the waters for something new. They can also give you a false sense of failure if they’re not sold properly on the floor. Most specials are communicated verbally to the customers, even if you have a chalk board someplace, your front of house staff is the surest way for your specials to thrive or fail. If the names are too complicated or the FOH staff doesn’t really understand the dish, they’re not going to be selling it table side with any enthusiasm.
First, keep the name simple. Pronunciation of words in foreign languages, whether it be French or Swahili, isn’t everyone’s forte and in the din of a busy dining room can easily get lost or garbled. Eschew using the traditional names for dishes and replace them with regional or country names along with simple, descriptive words. Spicy African Peanut Chicken conveys much more information about the dish than Chicken Muamba, which will lead to blank stares and possible disinterest.
Second, send a plate or two out to your staff to taste during family meal. If your staff doesn’t know what you’re serving, they’re not going to push it with any fervor or conviction. Educating your staff on all your specials, every time, helps build excitement around your food. There is no better sales pitch than from a server who says “I tried this earlier today, it is fantastic.”
Specials are also the perfect proving ground for perfecting new recipes. Finding what works and what doesn’t. Not to mention finding out if it comes off your line smoothly and without unforeseen complications. New cooking techniques and tastes take time to become second nature and to flow off the line without bogging it down.
Once you’ve perfected your dish, a seasonal menu is the perfect vehicle for introducing a dish to your regular repertoire. Converging seasonally relevant ingredients with exotic flavors is a great way to be creative and keep your diners coming back again and again through the year. Listen carefully for feedback, from both your customers and your staff. People may order something exotic just to say they’ve tried it, they might even say they like it, but will they order it again or recommend it to friends?
One clue is unfinished dishes where there was no complaint but also no request for a to-go box. You’ll probably get some local buzz, “you’ll never guess what I tried at…”, which may get a few extra people through your doors but might not make the dish worth adding permanently.
Regular Menu/African Section
Specials have been run. Dishes on your seasonal menu have been tested, some discarded while some are big hits. Now it’s time to roll out on your main menu. Unlike a verbally explained special, it might now be time to use the traditional names for the dishes. Spring Chicken stuffed with couscous, orange water, raisins and almonds will catch people’s attention during a verbal presentation, but Ferakh Maamer with a brief description underneath will stand out on a printed menu. Still, you want to be careful of words that might have another meaning, i.e. not using the Swahili name “kamba wa nazi” for your saffron shrimp dish.
All this, of course, depends on the sophistication level of your clientele. Some diners respond excitedly to exotic names from distant locales with an air of authenticity. Others may be more than willing to try the unusual but just want a simple, easy to understand explanation of the dish. Bottom line: if your customers respond to fries with gravy but not poutine, go with the clearer name.
You may also want to dedicate a whole section of your menu to an African style or technique. The Moroccan tagine is the perfect example of that. A single section with five or six different combinations of protein and seasonings, maybe even a tagine du jour to keep if fresh.
Regardless of which method you choose, and whether you dabble with a few dishes or incorporate African cuisine fully into your menu, don’t forget staff education. You wouldn’t expect one of your line cooks to do a dish without showing them the full recipe and techniques used, and you can’t expect your front of house staff to enthusiastically sell without really knowing what your food tastes like. Continuing education of your all your staff, front and back, breaks bad habits and keeps them engaged and focused.