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Small plates are a big idea

Sysco Shape December 2014

Small plates can prove to be a big plus for food service operators looking to drive traffic and appeal to the more adventurous side of their clientele.

Offered chiefly at higher-end restaurants as a possible alternative to the traditional appetizer-entrée-dessert triumvirate, small plates provide guests with the ability to expand their dining experience through the addition of specially designed selections that also can be shared in a few bites with others. In addition, they allow customers concerned with health and wellness to better control their calorie intake without compromising the enjoyment of a meal.

Chefs, in particular, are bullish on the growing trend of engaging their customers through the menuing of small plates. In the National Restaurant Association's What's Hot for 2014 survey of nearly 1,300 members of the American Culinary Federation, “grazing” or small-plate sharing ranked No. 17 on the list of Top 20 Trends. According to the study, which was conducted in October-November 2013, 67 percent of those polled called small plate sharing a “hot trend,” while a further 15 percent characterized it as a “perennial favorite.”

To be sure, the basic concept of small plates is not an absolutely new one. John Mariani, food and travel columnist for Esquire magazine and publisher of Mariani's Virtual Gourmet Newsletter, cites other such small-plate dining experiences as Spanish tapas, Japanese omakase meals or even the Dutch rijsttafel, a variation on an Indonesian-style meal centered around rice and small side dishes. “Small plates have always been with us,” Mariani observes.

Some even liken them to more conventional appetizer portions. However, others maintain that today's small plates have evolved beyond appetizer comparisons, saying they actually have more in common with entrées. “They're more complex than appetizers,” says chef David Kamen, manager of consulting projects at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. “Today's small plate is more like a 'smallified' entrée. It's a small main item with accompaniments and a sauce.”

As an example, he cites a small plate selection containing a single grilled lamb chop with a breadcrumb topping and a mint jus, a small portion of potato and thimble-size serving of ratatouille. “All of the components that once might have been found in an entrée are now offered in a small serving,” he says. “There are definite separate components. It's not a shrimp cocktail.”

Small plates are popular with various consumer groups, too. For example, small plates appeal to those diners who are combing the menus in search of a more healthful dining experience. “Many diners are looking for foods made the way they like them, but in smaller amounts,” says Harry Balzer, vice president of the NPD Group, a research firm based in Port Washington, N.Y. “[Small plates] have a basic health appeal. If calories are an issue, smaller portions provide for fewer calories.”

At the same time, Millennials have shown themselves to be more adventurous than their Baby Boom predecessors when it comes to dining out, and enjoy the idea of trying a number of different selections and sharing them with friends. Small plates also dovetail well with the trend toward incorporating more ethnic, differently flavored dishes into restaurant menus. “We're seeing more regionality and more cross culturalism,” Kamen says. “And diners are allowing themselves permission to try new things.

“It provides a different way of sampling new flavors,” he continues. “People are willing to take a chance with something different if it's smaller — particularly if they are less expensive, too.”

Smaller price tags appeal to customers watching their wallets, Balzer says. “The industry is looking for ways to bring people back in, and smaller portions can cost the consumer less money — which can bring people back in the door,” he explains. “People are still strapped.”

NPD research has found that the number of meals bought at restaurants by the average American is roughly the same as it was two decades ago. For the period ended August 2014, the average American bought 191 meals at a restaurant over the previous 12 months, compared with 193 meals in 1994. “Restaurant meals are considered to be expensive, and if you can offer smaller portions and charge less, that can be appealing to consumers,” Balzer says.

If designed correctly, small plates can prove to be profitable for restaurants as well, Karam says. In addition to generating increased traffic with lower price points, small plates can help drive down food cost. “The pricing structure is in favor of the restaurant,” he says.

He cites as an example a small plate containing a seared scallop with a roasted beet vinaigrette and frisée salad. “The most expensive part of a dish is usually the protein, and how much does one scallop cost?” he says.

However if the guest perceives the small plate as being priced too high, it can backfire on the restaurant, Balzer cautions. “Consumers will see right away if you're charging them too much,” he says.

While innovative, lower-cost small plates are growing increasingly popular with consumers, they also appeal to the chefs who get to design them. “They give us the opportunity to be creative,” Karam says. “They break the mold of the traditional entrée — meat in the center-of-the-plate with the vegetable and starch at 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock. Small plates are the new place to be creative and do different things. There are no rules.”

Meanwhile, the trend toward small plates or smaller portions has begun to trickle down to other segments, experts say. “All kinds of restaurants are doing it,” Kamen says. “Maybe not just with small plates but with smaller, handheld options. Even quick-service restaurants are starting to rethink their menus. Small plates give these operators the ability to have snack-type things are their menus, too.”

Overall, experts predict, small plates will play a greater role as the dining-out experience continues to evolve. “We should expect to see more of it in the future,” Balzer says.


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