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March 6, 2018

Creating a Flexible Menu

By Piet Jones

Flexible-menu-new2Nothing brings a kitchen to a screeching halt faster than a special order. Even slight changes can disrupt the finely-tuned rhythm of the line and, if the dish has to be touched by more than one chef, the odds of an unintentional fumble increase exponentially. Then there’s the twinge of disappointment at a well-orchestrated dish, one that the head chef worked hours to create and perfect, being re-imagined into something that may very well not reflect the culinary story he or she is trying to create.

Like it or not, special orders aren’t just here to stay, they are becoming the norm — the expectation, not the exception. But perhaps it’s time to embrace this change. Step away from the rigidness of an invariable menu and allow a bit of customization that ensures you maintain control of the dishes and can minimize disruption to service.

This doesn’t have to be a major change. Consider that much of the demand for menu customization comes from two sources; dietary allergies and lifestyle choices. Take a look down your menu. Are there any dishes which you could, with a couple of minor changes, make gluten free? Perhaps by forgoing the breadcrumbs or replacing the sauce with a compound butter? Of course, the modified dish might require a new ingredient or two that increases the food cost of a dish. In that case, don’t be afraid to impose a small upcharge. Increasing options, and clearly identifying that certain dishes can be made gluten free, will help steer people to those dishes. It will also likely reduce the number of requests for changes to other dishes that might not be so easily modified.

Make it Easy

Accommodating lifestyle choices can be just as much of a challenge as those with allergies, sometimes more so. The rules aren’t as clear, and each person may have a different definition for themselves. Still, you probably have dishes on your menu that can be easily modified to meet some of the more common requests; to be made vegetarian or vegan. Your gourmet mac-n-cheese? Removing the bacon or lobster will easily transform it into a vegetarian option. Your tagliatelle Bolognese might be a little more problematic. Well, unless you keep some vegetarian sausage on hand which could easily replace the meat - making it vegan if served without cheese or with a vegan cheese substitute. You could even accommodate those that are avoiding dairy by replacing the sauce or butter on a dish by making a compound butter with coconut oil. That adds flavor and is an extremely hot and trendy ingredient.

You could also go “all-in” and design your menu to be totally customizable. Create a list of proteins, options for cooking, a few sauces to choose from, plus some sides that could be added. A bit like the old Chinese menus where you choose one from column A, one from column B, etc. This would also be a perfect opportunity to upsell to raise that check average a bit. Perhaps some crumbled bleu cheese to go atop that steak or crab to stuff inside that lovely flounder. The key here is to not let it get too complicated or confusing. Straightforward simplicity is best. You don’t want diners saying they like your place, but the menu is too overwhelming and they end up going somewhere else to keep it simple.

Training Time

All your efforts to make your menu more flexible and accommodating, though, can be for naught if you don’t adequately train your staff, both front- and back-of-house. It can be as simple as letting a diner know that maybe the bleu cheese isn’t a good choice with the flounder or deeper knowledge like warning a diner with a nut allergy away from a dish that uses almond flour. Clear communication between the service staff and cooks is also critical. Every dish prepared improperly is money taken away from your bottom line.

Remember – the days of “no special orders” are gone. Whether it’s by choice or necessity, diners demand accommodation and with so many restaurants chasing customers, you need to respond. Fortunately, with a little planning and strategic offerings to help steer your customers, you can avoid watching your dinner service come to a screeching halt at the worst possible moment.




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