For the last few weeks — really since states began mandating dining room closures — one of the most commonly uttered pieces of advice for restaurants has been to rethink their menus. Between a global pandemic, a looming recession, and unprecedented disruption to daily life, it seems the one piece of restaurant operations that’s pretty much never changed suddenly needs a major overhaul.
That point was reiterated yesterday at The Spoon’s COVID-19 virtual summit. In particular, two big points stuck out: the menu needs to teach consumers how to eat healthier and it needs to be redesigned for the off-premises format.
Robert Egger, the founder of LA Kitchen, talked about the need to rethink the menu in times like these and focus on trimming portions down.
“The tyranny of the plate is something we need to reject,” he said on a panel with Spoon Publisher Mike Wolf and chef Mark Brand. He was talking specifically about the four-compartment meal that represents the standard American diet, where “the big piece of meat” is accompanied by vegetables and starches.
Egger’s suggestion is that restaurants and institutional foodservice businesses distance themselves from that format and look to menu models that create more integrated meals that are plant-forward and rely on alternative proteins for sustenance. Think of the grain bowls or falafel bowls served up by chains like Sweetgreen or Tender Greens, two companies Egger referenced in his talk. These, he says, can give customers a “robust, flavorful replacement” for the standard American diet that relies so heavily on animal proteins and gigantic portions.
Brand agreed. “If you continue to feed the beast, which is literal obesity and diabetes, you’re already part of the problem,” he said. “Why are you opening a restaurant to kill people?”
Instead of reacting to what they think customers want to see on the menu, restaurants should instead try to lead customers to choices that will be better for them. That could mean offering an alternative protein to chicken or not serving avocado toast in a region that doesn’t grow avocados. It definitely includes serving smaller portions and getting away from what Eggar called “the groaning plate.”
In many cases, it will also mean preparing food that can travel easily. With restaurant dining rooms closed for now, businesses are having to quickly pivot to off-premises models that serve delivery and takeout meals. One mantra I’ve heard often in my conversations over the last few weeks is “pare down your menu” to make it friendlier to the off-premises format.
Moving your menu to an off-premises setting is more than just a matter of uploading your existing one to Postmates et al. Restaurants have to factor in what food travels well and how they can offer variety without inducing decision paralysis, where a customer sees so many options they freeze up.
At the event yesterday, Chowly’s Sterling Douglass said there was no magic number of menu items when it comes to offering choice without that decision paralysis. Rather, it’s a matter of simplifying the choices themselves. For example, an item called “Chicago-style Hot Dog” will be selected more than a hot dog that requires customers to take an extra step by selecting “Chicago-style” from a list of styles.
And, of course, the food has to travel well from the restaurant to a customer’s house. That’s where Eggar’s grain bowls could prove themselves really valuable. A plate of chicken parmesan sliding around a box and getting more lukewarm with every minute doesn’t exactly make for an appetizing to-go order. A bowl of greens, quinoa, and other items that were meant to be mixed together makes a whole lot more sense when it comes to food that travels. My bet is that it’s cheaper to produce, too.
As restaurants continue building and modifying their models to fit in this strange new world or social distancing, paring the menu down to a few simpler, healthier options could prove the most beneficial thing for everyone’s health, not to mention their wallets.