Small plates aren't new. While not every American has sampled Eastern Mediterranean mezes, references to Spanish tapas have become common among those who dine out. Chinese dim sum (which in Cantonese translates roughly to “order to your heart's content”) are so common they're turning Japanese (or, more generally, Asian).
Could this interest in meals made up of such small portions ever replace the super-sized entrée or signal the imminent demise of the doggie bag?
Clearly, not yet. For many, “more will always be more.”
But just as clearly, small plates are coming to the food scene in a big way. Last autumn, the NRA surveyed nearly 1,300 chef members of the American Culinary Federation (ACF), Inc., asking them to rate 194 menu items based on how “hot” they are with diners right now. While locally grown and organic produce ranked second and third, respectively, the respondents said the hottest item on menus today is bite-sized desserts. And in the No. 4 spot, trumping such oft-touted trends as sustainable seafood, mojitos and pomegranate flavor? Small plates.
“We're doing a lot more small-batch cooking now,” says KenToong, executive director of dining services at UMass-Amherst. “And when you put more emphasis on presentation, people are more likely to treat your offerings like delicacies.”
Management companies have clearly adopted this strategy in select applications. Sodexo's Corporate Services Division offers Simply to Go Sweet Shots — smaller-portion, low-price-point, portable desserts aimed at customers who yearn for a guilt-free indulgence that's also convenient. Restaurant Associates' mini-desserts station at Hearst Corporation in New York increases guest excitement as well as check averages.
Self-ops have been testing these waters as well. Small desserts also earn high marks at Ashland University in Ohio. Offered in every dining outlet, they're most popular at lunch in the casual-upscale Accent Room, says Brent Cline, the university's executive sous chef, whose team developed eight varieties to serve in shot glasses etched with the university's logo and presented in a stylish caddy.
University of North Texas Dining Services opened up its Mean Greens Café last year to promote wellness through small plates that spark high interest and help students manage their nutritional and caloric intakes.
And at New York Presbyterian Hospital, sushi, prepared for all five campuses by a dedicated chef, satisfies demand for a variety of fresh-made, smaller bites, and alone accounts for 15% of food sales. Though profit on sushi is less than that of most menu items, “I can't imagine how many people I'd tick off if I took it away,” says Sue Sussman, retail business manager. “It's a satisfier.”
Indeed, where they appear, small plates are making a big splash in virtually all foodservice segments. In onsite venues ranging from sport parks to assisted-living centers to campus dining, small-plate offerings can yield large dividends when menued appropriately.
Also, while some guests gravitating to small plates consume less food overall, many consume more. Some might even drop more cash on several small plates than they would on a single hefty entrée or traditional buffet.
Controlling food waste
Brett Lewis, corporate executive chef of Spartanburg, S.C.-based Centerplate, sees a trend toward small plates in sports-park accounts. “The opportunity in large-volume venues is to provide more variety at a reasonable cost while still satisfying a number of guests in a pretty sophisticated manner,” he says.
“At a club at a baseball stadium, where before we would just offer a buffet, now we might do an antipasto-style bar with a selection of small plates. It gives guests a chance to experience several items instead of gorging on 12 ounces of prime rib at the carving station. It's really an opportunity to explore.”
Lewis is excited about rolling out his small-plates concept for the home opener of the Indianapolis Colts in the new Lucas Oil Stadium in late summer.
“Kitchen designers in major venues like stadiums are aware of our need to provide small-plate service,” he says. “At Lucas Oil Stadium, the kitchens will be on the suite level so we can have a room-service type kitchen, letting us give customers a much quicker and fresher food experience.”
Some operators are using small plates to help control food waste or encourage more healthful dining, as in the Mean Greens example. UMass — Amherst launched its “small plate, big flavor” program in 2006 after Toong attended The Culinary Institute of America's Worlds of Healthy Flavors conference in Napa Valley earlier that year.
“We believe our customers want quality and not quantity, especially in our all-you-care-to-eat program. The program is working well and our students are more satisfied. We reduced waste at the same time. ”
Some examples: A sheet of brownies now yields 144 pieces instead of 72, and strawberry shortcake became a smaller “biscuit” with more fruit. Bagels shrank. What increased was an emphasis on world cuisines and their reliance on more vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes, artfully prepared with a greater range of seasonings and presented in smaller portions. Freshly made sushi, dim sum and smaller bowls of Vietnamese pho, where students can take as little or as much as they want, are huge hits.
Toong notes that standbys such as roast turkey, pizza and meatloaf and potatoes haven't been bumped from menus. There's simply a greater choice of smaller, more healthful items across the university's dining venues.
Small plates are having an impact in senior dining, too, according to Natalie Rose-Miller, marketing specialist for Sodexo Senior Services, which is testing a small-plates program for assisted-living residents in the Northeast.
“Many of our seniors regularly enjoy going to trendy restaurants” and look for the trends they see there on onsite menus, she says. Chef Robert Noble, dining and culinary senior manager who oversees some 80 Senior Services accounts, says the program test will consist of three options: a regular entrée with small appetizer and salad choices; a choice of small entrées; and a choice of small desserts. If it is successful with residents, it will roll out to all accounts in the region next spring.
The challenge to offering small plates? “Labor is more costly,” says Centerplate's Lewis. “You're building plates to order.
“However, if you develop an antipasto or appetizer concept where people can nurture their appetites, they let their hair down and really explore the food choices you are offering.”
Brent T. Frei operates Frei & Associates, a foodservice-marketing firm based in Schaumburg, Ill. Prior, he was director of marketing for the American Culinary Federation, Inc.
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