Tips on How to Work on Your Side Dish Hustle

Culinary-driven sides can make your restaurant the destination for picky eaters

Side dishes aren’t free, right? So why not give them the same nod as the other categories of your menu? Vegetables and non-entree elements can heft 20% of sales, while desserts, for instance, may be only about 3%, yet chocolate gets more attention from the back-of-the-house than the roasted beet salad or the cheese plate.

Right that wrong for the sake of driving sales, keeping your menu sharp, and making good restaurant sense.

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Side dishes make the meal. Just don’t call them side dishes.

Add-on dishes drive top-line sales and raise the per-person average (PPA.) Desirable side dishes jazz guests - even picky ones -  with more opportunities to be impressed by your food.

What do interesting ‘sides’ look like? Start by not calling them sides. Just like the value of vegetables is diminished with “veggies,” find nomenclature that works for your brand, but stay away from sides. Vegetables, shareable, or ‘for the table’, are more marketable terms than sides, unless you are pedaling a 2-ounce soufflé  cup of coleslaw or apple sauce, you can do better. Also, bump the list to better menu geography to raise the dishes’ status.

Feed the table

Portions large enough to make a lap around the table impact more guests and fetch bigger sales; that’s easy math. Take Toronto’s Fat Pasha’s roasted cauliflower; the whole vegetable is roasted with tahini, skhug, pine nuts, pomegranate, and halloumi. Something for guests to talk about (and post on Instagram) and it pays your rent.

A fundamental ingredient upended with a culinary flourish can coax some of the reluctance out of those less food-forward. Again, another win.

Take the lead from Joe’s Stone Crab and label the vegetable category “...large enough to share.” Why? Group mentality. If it’s for the table, then there’s no guilt about ordering too much food. A humble order of grilled asparagus or onion rings both could fetch a cool $10. That translates to one dish dropping an extra $2.50 to PPA.

Easy on the season

An accompanying dish is easy to re-engineer with the season versus a main course that may have a multi-pan pick-up. Who says specials are only for main dishes? When Mark from the produce company calls with a deal on a bumper crop of little eggplants, make the move. Deliver the vegetables as a feature, share it with the table, and put good margins on an item at the top of its seasonal game.

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In the era of community tables and shared dining experiences, having dishes designed to divvy is an automatic. Cleveland’s Flying Fig boasts only two sections on their core menu - entrees and everything else. It’s the latter that ups the stakes for the culinarily enchanted. Their taleggio polenta, tempura green beans, or bacon wrapped dates tickle the right spots.

A concert is live music. Garnish the performance with lights and some crazy-ass visuals and you have a happening! The same goes for a meal, right? Some devil is in the details, all the way across the menu, not just center stage. There is the same seismic emotion in great food - regardless of where it falls on the menu - as the charged arm flailing at a great show. Do not diminish the value of righteous cornbread studded with currants and caressed with maple butter. A dish is a dish is a dish. Allowing any victual to languish as “just” a side, is a culinary felony. Get each dish up and moving.

Looking for some more words of wisdom from Chef Jim? Check out the latest Chef AF podcast episode below where he discusses with fellow Chef Derek Stevens about cities where the culinary scene is somewhat forgotten in the food world and which cities are now seeing a food resurgence.

Why Millennials are Still Willing to Pay a Premium for Food Delivery

We know that the Gen Y crew is using delivery services in massive numbers. So, what can restaurants do to hold onto sales? Or, better yet, grow those sales that are being driven around in the backseat of a Prius?

In some segments, delivered meals are hovering around 30% of top-line sales versus 10% just two years’ ago. The conversation is real and there are only semantic distinctions between sales within the brick-and-mortar and those that are on the road.

But why?

Looking for insight, go to the source. It’s not always having the answers, but merely asking the right questions.

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What is it about delivery?

It's all about convenience, duh!

From skipping traffic to getting food from A-list restaurants but avoiding the crowds, leisure time is in the balance.

“I prefer the privacy of eating at home after a stressful day, knowing the bathroom is clean, and the amount of time [delivery] can save me,” says Samantha, a 23-year-old in Portland, OR, when asked about her decision to stay home.

“Delivery apps allow us to see all of our food options in one place without searching through Google maps or Yelp.” Solo diners chime in, as well. “I want to enjoy food from my favorite restaurants without having to leave my apartment. I’ll also [order] on work trips if I’m running low on time,” says Jacqueline, a 26-year-old recent transplant from Houston, TX.

Collective dining is still witnessed in the wild by the ubiquity of sharing plates and communal seating. Some have a better time than most can dream, so they stay home - together.

“[We] don’t have to worry about finding a place that everyone likes. We can all order from different places and it will come right to us. My one friend, she gets Chili’s delivered to her house!” says Abby, a 23-year-old in New Castle, DE.

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Why not go to a restaurant for a meal?

The digital natives appreciate being unplugged from their surroundings. Interaction, though, is what happens behind a screen. So uninterrupted time matters. Abby jokes, “I don’t like servers constantly bothering me; if I want a refill or if I need something, I’ll let them know. Or I can just get it myself.”

Samantha, chimes in, “Crowds, wait times, not being asked for my ID respectfully - or being asked for it before I even order anything - is super annoying. Sometimes I feel like waiters and waitresses assume that we won't tip well because we are young and we receive poorer service than others.”

“I don’t like dining in [a restaurant] when I don’t want to deal with people or would rather [...] eat at my own place,” says Celine, a 25-year-old in Newark, Delaware.

The cost of dining on site has an expense that can be buffered by avoiding the restaurant. “Two pints of beer in Portland [Oregon] are equal to the cost of a six-pack. So for the cost of having drinks for two, you can buy beer for a week. When you order food in you also have your at-home entertainment, like Netflix or Hulu, which is also a big factor, and you drink whatever you want to,” says Samantha.

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Are the costs that ride along with the order an issue?

“Costs can be a problem depending on the restaurant, with many online sites such as Uber Eats, GrubHub, and Seamless; they add extra [fees] for delivery and have more out of pocket for a tip, like spending $25 on a $15 meal,” says 23-year-old Jamil.

Samantha adds, “Certain apps do not explicitly tell you the delivery fee price until you are about to click 'buy.' I think they do this so you are too decision fatigued to go back and pick something else, but we always do. Especially if it’s a place we have never tried before.”

Does the charge sway the decision? Apparently not. “I’m content with paying delivery costs, especially if it’s a restaurant I frequent,” says 26-year-old Fortuna.

While some delivery services put quite a pinch on operators to pay 30% of a sale, the customers placing the orders are an adaptable breed. “It’s still usually less than what you would tip a waiter. It’s still more convenient to stay in. I’d rather pay the delivery fee,” says Abby.

Is the trend going to last a thousand years into restaurant life? We only know as much as the tweezer-wielding cooks and the baked-Alaska chefs that redefine what’s hot and what’s not.

Until then, pack it to go and don’t forget to staple the dupe onto the environmentally friendly bag loaded with Brussels sprouts, fish tacos, and quinoa bowls. So, yes, Netflix and Chill is a real thing for millennials and it’s often paired with food delivery.

How the Chef's Role is Changing and How Chefs Have Become the Voice Of Reason in Today's Industrialized Food System

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Chefs taking the lead in how — and what — we cook makes sense. Surround yourself with the best people you can afford and trust their decision making. With that, there is a gentle progress murmuring in kitchens. Chefs are making demands on the people that supply ingredients.

Although conventional wisdom says that makes sense, we still have brigades of kitchen staffers that are disconnected from the order guides, program money, and vendor agreements that hobble their ability to make logic of our food system.

A long, long time ago, there was a kitchen designed around the needs of the people that actually used the space. The sinks were in just the right place, the oven was exactly what was needed for firepower, the pick-up window was seamless and glistened with the efficiency of a smart, adept space.

Farmers would bring their toils to the stoops of the cooks. All was right in the world. The end-users were the decision makers. But somewhere along the way, cooks and chefs lost some of their say in policy. We moved more towards numbers and less towards, well, food. Packages got bigger, chickens got more alien-like, and apples stopped rotting. We pawned common sense for dollars and cents.

Fortunately, getting that voice back is happening. Common sense is not always common knowledge, yet we are an adaptable breed, and now we are demanding the systems with which we know we can thrive.

Efficiency Matters

Out in Colorado, agriculture opportunities are a bit more challenging than what we find in Nogales, Salinas, or Napa. Uncooperative terrain is only one hurdle. Alex Seidel of Fruition and Mercantile, among others, has been working with a local potato grower to get the supply with which his restaurants can depend. Working directly is the operative element of changing the relationship between vendors and customers. The big-rig distributors aren’t able to deliver the dialed-in specs that many chefs want. Nothing personal, but the products sometimes don’t work. Seidel stepped into the process by building an efficient relationship to shape the supply system. Not as easy as calling the 1-800 number to place the order, but the result is a local supply that performs as he wants.

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Free range, GMO-free, No Antibiotics, No nothin’

We created this market of consumer demands. We did! We created a field of consumers that understand all-natural. They understand local and antibiotic-free. Now, this more educated consumer base looks for clean labeling and we must comply. And it isn’t just boutique restaurants that are upending their ingredients’ profile.

Panera Bread, for instance, has evolved their menu over the past several years to full transparency, laden with clean ingredients. Why? There is a move from antiquated systems that are dependent on multiple layers of preservatives, unpronounceable ingredients, and monster-esque constructs. There is common sense at play here. The restaurant biz is showcasing food that customers want and the market is responding. Our evolving food systems are grounded in clarity and practical magic versus works of science fiction.

Door Dash & Grub Hub. For Farmers.

There are great farms trying to get their products to the restaurants that so desire to use local commodities. The problem? Distribution. Old Dirt Hill Farm can’t possibly be expected to grow, tend to, harvest, and distribute their crops. It just isn’t an efficient use of resources.

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In development, the FoodBank of Delaware is building a produce hub. Think of it like Door Dash, but for farmers. Not every restaurant wants or is able to deliver, just like every farm isn’t able to do the same. In steps the FoodBank’s hub. With an already existent system for gathering donations, the circle widens by grabbing produce from throughout northern Delaware. The produce then makes its way back to the FoodBank where it will be packaged or further processed by FoodBank trainees and then distributed. There are wins on many levels; farmers move produce, the FoodBank gets a share, and chefs get local produce delivered minus the distribution headache. A sensible solution that keeps a closed loop of local spending and, more importantly, an efficient system that isn’t dragging tomatoes 2,000 miles on a carbon-spewing eighteen-wheeler with under-ripe produce.

Ugly Produce

Speaking of produce, conventional wisdom has taken over when it comes to food waste on the production side. Blemished, misshapen peppers, tomatoes, and squash are set aside on the retail level as their more preferred contemporaries. As a result, a lot of waste.

Chefs, on the other hand, are embracing the ugly produce to capitalize on pricing and, more importantly, to use their culinary prowess to make appealing food within a system that shames sad looking potatoes.

Hungry Harvest, for instance, drops boxes of “rescued” produce on both the retail and wholesale levels in the mid-Atlantic region and beyond. Why? For restaurants, the impact on food cost is real. Bonus? It is marketable. And, there is no need to discard a perfectly usable product when we have populations around the country that are food insecure.

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As challenging as it may be to develop a relationship with a producer to birth a system, it is just as easy to run to the local grocery depot for products ticking in at a discount. The sacrifice, though, is that quality along the system.

Chefs are the customers of farmers, purveyors, and manufacturers. So it makes sense that they get looped in on the decision making. Making sense of what is being produced based on needs is as fundamental as the blueprint of the kitchen. And, much like that particular blueprint, we have gone astray.

With the new fierceness of contemporary chefs taking the lead in systems, we are getting back the authority to make educated decisions. It starts with the end in mind. We know what we want to see from operations and systems and what makes sense. We are waking up and making plans to change the world.

Want more tips from Chef Berman? Listen to the latest episode of The Barron Report where Host Paul Barrons finds out what Chef Berman thinks about food. You also get a sneak peek into what to expect from the first season of Chef AF, a new podcast with Berman as the host.

These Chef Innovations are Poised to Breakout in 2019

Let's face it, restaurant customers are finicky. And we are all customers. We want trusted dishes. But we want new dishes that are interesting. We want to be entertained. But we don’t want every meal to be an adventure. We like some pieces of the menu to be thought-provoking, but don’t want to be confused and frustrated with whackadoodle inventions.

Let’s all agree that innovation has a place, albeit controlled and calculated. Innovation does not mean the latest kitchen gadget, either. Innovation is as much technique as it is the tools in your hand.

So, how can chefs stir customer interest when they want it to be stirred in 2019?

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3-D Food Printing

Definitely not something that will ride the wave of tenacity and ubiquity, but interesting, nonetheless.

Think of 3D food printing much in the way chocolate fountains were kinda cool when they first started dribbling their goopy chocolate all over tablecloths at weddings far and near. Novel? Yes. Technology-driven? For sure. Practical? Debatable.

But there are serious chefs latching on to the technology. For example, Paco Pérez at Barcelona’s Enoteca has unleashed 3D printed dishes. The Michelin-starred chef uses printing technology in place of design work that would be nearly impossible to accomplish by hand.

Do you really need a sneaker printed out of marzipan? No. But you also don’t need a big-ass block of ice carved into the likeness of King Tritan leaking water all over the floor, holding up chilled shrimp. But we still do it.

For now, it is something to talk about it. We did the same thing with those pictures printed on rice paper and layered onto sheet cakes. Why? Because we can. And, yeah, it sells.

Plant Proteins

Tofu. Chickpeas. Almonds. Hemp seeds. At casual dining restaurants like Firebird’s, Red Robin and Chili’s, healthy halo dishes are flourishing. And it isn’t just vegetarian dishes. It is the dynamic flavoring as much in demand as their meat-based counterparts.

Zaytina, for instance, menus a stew of green chickpeas and tomatoes. Not a timid offering for the likes of José Andrés. Then there's the flourishing fast casual darling, Honeygrow, big on noodle, rice, and greens as the basis for their popular bowls, but takes tofu one step further with a roasted, spiced treatment. Veg-centric is a macro-trend that is pervasive with strong ties to plant protein menuing.

Digital/Continuous Temp Logging Tools

A real piece of technology that we can - and should - hook our food safety talons into? Anything dealing with improved food safety. And a technology piece that takes some of the human factor (translation: labor) out of the cost equation is definitely on the menu. T

aking temperatures of refrigerators, freezers, low-boys, and walk-ins is a forgettable annoyance at best and tedious at worst. But it needs to be done. Or should be done!

Logging temperatures is a health department requirement in many municipalities or shortly will be. And it is good business sense to keep an eye on equipment performance to prevent failures and hella costly repairs or replacements. Continuously record temperatures of in-place equipment and get alerts to keep things smooth. While it takes 30 seconds for a cook to log temps, he can forget or fake it. Yes, I am looking at you. Take the risk out of this risk factor and sleep easier.

Tableside Cooking - What’s Old is New. Again.

Not every innovation is new. Some developments are reinventions from the by-gone days. Remember Dover sole prepared tableside? Or crepes in a copper pan set aflame to the "oohs" and "ahhs" of onlookers? The novel element of tableside cooking is much akin to the allure of open kitchens.

Guests like to see the action that it takes to make Aunt Stella’s alligator pie get flambéed. If Chicago’s Tony Mantuano is doing tableside dishes at River Roast, then it must be cool.

The Wayback Machine

Classic French fare is not going to replace braised short rib, jackfruit tacos, or quinoa bowls today. But it is getting a refreshed nod. The demise of jacket-and-tie restaurants is no secret. Like tableside cooking, though, what is old is new again. Elevated French food is the highwater mark for classically trained chefs. But what about for the new crew of kitchen renegades? Well, they appreciate - and execute - a good confit like their predecessors. Most recently, a refresh to French-grounded menus with structured appetizer, entrée, dessert formats is reemerging.

Small plates, shareables, and communal dining are not fading. New York’s Benno, the recently opened namesake of Chef Jonathan Benno, brings acclaim to classical French (and a dollop of Italian) to the notorious trend epi-center of the U.S. The turn to classic dining as a mainstream option is still a ways off. But it does hold enough novel individualism that it is new to people that grew up without fitted suits, button downs, and carpeted dining rooms devoid of Edison lights.

A little flourish to the ordinary keeps customers interested. Yes, eighty-percent of sales will still come from the top 20 percent performers. But giving customers something to keep them involved is what has chefs, customers, and Instagrammers asking for the “what’s next.”

The Biggest Threat to Kitchen Success

The Biggest Threat to Kitchen Success

Employing a crew of trained kitchen killers means you need brain power as much as cooking firepower.

So how do you get your cooks to think, troubleshoot, and work critically? Or do you?

Asking members of the biz for their insight on how they get their cooks to think, the responses fell shockingly silent. This quiet is surprising because we ask our kitchen crews to work harder, work faster, work cleaner.

“Work smarter, not harder” is cliche and familiar. But what are we doing as leaders in the kitchen to be a catalyst for thinking?

Historically - and depending on with whom you are talking to - restaurant failure rate within five years is somewhere in the neighborhood of 80%. Poor product? Sometimes. Location? Maybe. Fiscal mismanagement? Now you are getting warmer. Off-mission? A resounding yes.

Having a mission and actually understanding how to keep the train on those tracks requires intellect. And that is where we aren’t stirring the pot.

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