By Jim Berman, Foodable Industry Expert
Side dishes are usually made up of that little thimbleful of coleslaw, french fries, or some sautéed mushrooms. Rejected from their role as actual dishes, the little plop of haphazardly, half-thought roasted potatoes are for stretching a main course — or just to fill white space on a menu.
But they’re also a glorious missed opportunity. Once side dishes move from the bottom of the menu to more prominent real estate, the easily overlooked drab monkey dish of nothingness becomes real for guests and operators. Chefs, want to turn your side dishes into the main attraction? Here are some tips.
1. Turn Your Sides Into Companions.
According to Dictionary.com, companion is defined as “...intended to complement or match each other.”
A dish that works in conjunction with the other parts of the meal can be an expertly crafted match. Think of companion dishes as a happy gathering of part-sharable and part-side-dish that works across the menu, as well as across the table. These intentional complements are proliferating for a reason.
2. Get Serious With Vegetables and Starches.
The dynamic of using interesting ingredients to construct companion dishes is energizing. Appealing dishes that are not necessarily of protein construct make for an interesting, moving target. No mystery that limp, gray-green vegetables aren’t going to glean the attention to make any positive impact on sales. Rather, unique food systems, trending flavors, and striking presentations will sell these New World choices.
Grilled vegetables are a start. What about tempura? Considered sous viding then roasting parsnips? What about dukkah-dusted romanesco? Beets with sheep’s milk ricotta, and baby carrots with tahini vinaigrette are formidable additions to a meal without being plunked out of sight as mere sides. In Philadelphia, Vernick gives front-page attention to their vegetable section. Rather, this category gets deliberate scrutiny.
3. Treat Them Like Any Other Contribution to the Menu.
Acute market watch is a necessary sentinel. What is popping right now? What is due next week? Research into the new non-side sides that get the same attention as the center of the plate, all the way from concept to execution. That means a purposeful cooking method, attention to seasoning, and a capable garnish.
4. Family-Style Dishes Are in.
Millennials are all about the communal dining experience — and they may be onto something. Isn’t the best part of the meal, after all, standing around a kitchen and picking at all the little half-cooked odds and ends? Turn this approach to hipster paradise by serving companion dishes in bowls suited for more than one serving. Upscale, casual tabletops are already stocked with sharing plates and serving spoons aplenty. Keep the theme going with a well-crafted vegetable section priced for larger portions.
5. Again — Chefs, Love Your Vegetables.
Do the heavy lifting in this section. Center-of-the-plate is becoming a muddled picture, anyhow. Produce offerings are ever-changing. There are stranger worlds than this one. Cauliflower pulled from the steamer is lacking, but brown butter cauliflower broiled with crispy shallots is a whole other deck of cards. Why discount the latest bounty? Put to task, chefs deliver amazing spirited approaches to build the section. The same should run all the way through the menu, not just on the higher-priced entrées. A few $8 vegetables can make up enough revenue to equal an entrée across a four-top.
Pittsburgh’s Altius builds a “For the Table” section, not as a starter or appetizer, but as companions to the main courses. Chef Jessica Bauer dishes Dirty Risotto and purple potato purée, among others, to build topline sales at one of the city’s most acclaimed operations.
6. Food Cost Down, Labor Cost Up.
Don’t fall for the pigeonhole of using only that silly food cost number as gauging what your operation is actually doing. A lower product cost is often followed by a higher labor cost. With these New World side dishes, the food cost can run to the single digits but require lengthier, more intricate preparation to cull the sales for which you hope. And that is okay. Fetching an extra $6 or $8 for a dish that otherwise would have been skipped over is soundly worth a little extra work.
7. Ask Yourself: Could I Have Been Anything But Me?
Could this dish be more than just the expectation? Making something from nothing is not only a hook for driving customer sales, but it is also for driving repeat business. A dish that is contrived with crafted skill becomes a conversation piece, a differentiator, and a lean to the positive in topline sales.
In Dallas, Gemma dots their vegetable offerings with riffs on common themes. Onion Rings, for instance, get spiced and a chile crème fraîche to make the dish memorable. Even classic greens dons an updo, as Swiss Chard gets shallot and toasted pine nuts.
Buca di Beppo, the Italian, family-style operator, has long been doing the table-sized accompaniments thing with their menu in its entirety. Knocking the conventional wisdom, why does the family feud revolve around the last scoop of garlic mashed potatoes? Because sides aren’t just sides; these companion dishes are the exclamation point on that Yelp-worthy review.