Offering food to your bar patrons is a critical element of success, but doing it well can be one of the toughest challenges in the business. Kitchens can require lots of expensive square footage and equipment. Finding talented, reliable staff sometimes seems impossible. Many of your ingredients are highly perishable. And what do operators get for all that effort and expense? Profit margins that can be 25 points less than margins at the bar!
But a sensible, well-executed menu can have a significant impact positive impact on customer satisfaction and the bottom line. Plus, the little bit of money made on food can lead to significant profits from the increases in beverage sales that result.
A Case for Small Plates
Developing a small plates menu for any operation can go a long way toward eliminating the pitfalls of operating a kitchen, while at the same time increasing patron satisfaction with your offerings and improving efficiency.
Small plate, or tapas-style dining, has been around for a really long time. A preferred method of dining in Spain, it reached our shores some years ago, and, while never really reaching fad status, it certainly has embedded itself into the mainstream of American dining.
There are a number of reasons for this, some focused on the consumer, others on the operator.
From the consumer’s perspective:
- Small plate dining is more social. This fact adds to the kind of environment you want to foster at your bar. Groups are likely to order many small plates, sharing their food as well as their impressions.
- Small plate dining is more entertaining. As with the delivery of an impressive cocktail across your bar, unique small-plate items will generate excitement from the patrons that order them as well as other customers in the general vicinity.
- Small-plate dining allows for greater experimentation. This is especially attractive to certain market segments, especially those attracted to craft cocktail bars. They are searching for excellent, interesting, and different drinks — and they are looking for the same things in food.
- Millennials love social, entertaining, and experimental. These are three characteristics of small plate dining and they squarely hit the preferences of this large and important demographic. They are more likely to eat out in groups than as couples and want a dining experience that can be shared among their group. They also have a clear preference for new, unique foods. There are large pieces of other demographic segments that share these preferences. Together they make up the bulk of your customers. You should give them what they like.
From the operator’s perspective:
- The menu can be small. As long as offerings are interesting and diverse, there is no need to offer a full menu to realize excellent sales volume. This reduces food inventory, the associated costs, and losses from spoilage. Smaller menus can be executed by staff with less experience and expertise.
- There is no need to sequence food. Timing appetizers, soups, salads, entrées, and desserts can be a near impossible challenge — complicated even for the most seasoned kitchen professionals. Unlike full, multiple-course meals, small plates can be made and served as soon as they are ordered. This just-in-time style of production increases the number of items that can be produced during a given period, increasing overall sales volume. It can also, as with smaller menus, be accomplished with less experienced and less expensive kitchen staff.
- Food cost on small plates is lower. The single largest cost of any entrée lies in the protein, or the center of the plate. Especially since meat and seafood have risen in cost and American consumers still expect large portions of each when ordering a full meal. Many operators have absorbed these increased costs, correctly concluding that their customers won’t pay the higher prices necessary to maintain margins. Small plates can include small portions of these expensive proteins or none of them at all, allowing for lower cost and higher margins.
- Patrons spend more on small plates. Research indicates that average guest checks are higher for guests dining on small plates than for guests ordering their own full meals. Small plates carry a relatively low purchase price, functioning to encourage guests to keep on ordering. Anecdotally, some operators report sales-volume increases as high as 25 percent after switching to small-plates menus.
- Patrons stay longer when they are eating. Jon Taffer, industry expert and host of Bar Rescue on Spike TV, says that when bar patrons are eating, they will stay in your establishment for 52 minutes more than when they are not. It’s difficult to get bodies in the door. For an operator, it’s important to keep them there and sell them more while they are. Margins on food are relatively smaller than those on beverage, but there is a very positive impact on overall profit when your patrons order one or two drinks more per visit. Food will do that.
Small-plates menus offer what is likely the experience the great majority of patrons prefer: an eating and drinking environment that is social, entertaining, and experimental. Patrons are likely to stay in your establishment longer and spend more while there. Money can be made on food sales, but the real profit comes from increased beverage sales. Small plates tend to have lower cost of goods and are easier for kitchen staff to prepare and deliver in a timely manner . . . clearly a win-win for everyone!