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.

Beyond the Trend: How to Get More Ethnic Flavors on to Your Menu

Restaurants are closing in on ethnic flavors to inject interest - and sales - into their dishes. Why? There is a real demise of many single ethnicity spots; broad strokes of ethnic colors up and down menus are, in part, responsible and, in part, a response. How many purely Italian restaurants are left in your city’s little Italy neighborhood?

How many straight-up Chinese restaurants are lingering in nearby Chinatown? Moving beyond the trend, ethnocentric menus are fading across many segments, while diversity blossoms.

Three asian pork tacos |   Shutterstock

Three asian pork tacos | Shutterstock

One great, big tossed salad of colors and flavors

Course by course, there are flavor swirls that excite interest and broaden customers’ addiction to lessening boredom. Arbitrarily mixing two, seemingly unpaired cuisines is not the plan. Rather, plays on conventional constructs that are grounded in, well, sense is a starting point. Remember when the cronut was a novel idea? Start there. Or here:

In Philly’s red hot glow of a burgeoning food scene, Cheu’s matzah ball ramen is a favorite. How does Japanese and kosher fare get to the front of the rope line? Carefully.  

The Nashville-hot tofu taco in Texas at Velvet Taco is a confetti of flavors that hail from all parts. We can argue that tacos are a likely vessel for about as many flavor combinations as a sandwich. To doodle with so many elements is exactly the stimulant for food sales and to pluck customers’ strings.

Paneer tacos aren’t that far off from the cheese’s comfort zone. Typically eaten with some form of bread, jamming the cheese of Persian origin into a flour or corn tortilla is practical. Dressing the paneer in Latin flavor, as they do at Roxie’s Tacos in Boulder, Colorado elevates and excites the omnipresent dish.

Chicago’s Saucy Porka wraps a puffed pillow of a traditional Japanese bao around taco fillings. The endgame? A baco. A Latin-Asian sparkle isn’t too far-reaching and makes sense for diners looking at mash-ups to keep up with interesting flavor adventures.

Fusion vs Confusion

What pre-dates the drive to embed co-mingled ethnic flavors? Remember fusion in the 1990’s? That glittery dive into rubbing together two - or more - obviously unrelated ethnicities in an effort to intrigue. What happened? Just whacked-out combinations that were strings of ingredients in non-sequiturs that did more to confuse customers then it did to make things attractive. Restraint lacked and diners fled the scene. Chose wisely, young Jedi!

Case Study: Brooklyn’s Shalom Japan

In Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, Shalom Japan is the litmus test for what can work when a (literal) marriage of cultures blooms. Japanese and kosher is an ethnic food unpredicted intersection. So what’s the appeal? Deliberate combinations boost flavor opportunities, like the restaurant’s Sake Kasu Challah French Toast, as well as offer guests traveling in a pack to not settle for one profile. The Sesame Temomi Mazemen and Lox Bowl live on the same menu. Not every meal needs to be an adventure into some nether region of whacked-out foodisms. Instead, well planned and expertly executed flourishes provide growth opportunities, for guests to get excited and operators to cast off the same ol’, same ol’.

The key to not being locked into one ethnicity? Research, flexibility, and testing. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that Sriracha was a head-scratching mystery of an ingredient. Now? Sriracha ketchup to dip your cheesesteak rolls. That’s what we are talking about.

If we want absolutely geographic authenticity, then we need to travel. But being out front doesn’t mean mixing all the colors together. Avoid a grey abyss of confusion by doing homework. Put flavors together and pull them apart.

The grace is gone from trying to hide mash-ups. Maybe fusion was ahead of its time. Rather than startling customers now, echoing ethnic specialties throughout a menu is now good business sense. Fearless dining isn’t quite as terrifying. Maybe it’s because we have come of age. We understand tempura and shwarma. Maybe not on the same plate, but on the same menu? Not unheard of. We are rather smitten by food that is thought-provoking. Ethnic embellishing is yet another element of a well-engineered menu to give guests an opportunity to wander.

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.