We’ve seen it pop up in the restaurant market for years, and the arrival of millennials wanting more customization in their dining experience has made smaller bites an increasingly attractive addition to menus nationwide. But when a established quick-serve giant like Taco Bell decides to adopt a new tapas menu as part of its business model, it’s hard not to sit up and take notice.
Originating in traditional Spanish bar cuisine and hitting American shores with force in the late 1990s, tapas has steadily been expanding its reach in the restaurant industry ever since. However, the phenomenon is no longer limited to plates of cold, sharp cheeses; oil-infused olives; or warm, spicy, sausage meats. The word ‘tapas’ has steadily come to mean any small plate selection for American consumers — not just that of Spanish-inspired menu items. But with the appetizer market booming as well, what makes tapas any different than a selection of starters?
Not an appetizer, not an entree
It’s not just restaurants that are establishing a difference between tapas-style small plates and traditional appetizers. Consumers are making the distinction clear with their dining choices, whether they realize it or not. Research firm Technomic recently observed that while 59 percent of appetizers are eaten as starters, only 33 percent of small plates are — leaving tapas-style menu items far more consumed in place of an entree than their close cousins.
But small plates aren’t meant to be a resized entree, as can be often the case with appetizers like sliders and wings. Consumers who choose to order small plates are expecting a service style and offerings that stand apart from your standard appetizer or entree menu. The pace of a small plate meal is very different than your traditional three-course service — or even that of a linear tasting menu offering main courses in smaller portions.
The ability to be mixed and matched in satisfying ways by the customers themselves is one of the key elements in curating your selection of small plate menu items. So each dish should feel unique, offering your guests an experience they can’t get elsewhere on your menu. Just be sure to balance meaty items with vegetarian ones — such as simple omelets, fried or pickled vegetables, and small cheese plates — so that each guest can feel they have multiple options available to satisfy their appetite at any given time.
The most important takeaway for the restaurateur is an understanding of the flexibility of small plates — and not just how it impacts your guests. The potential for driving increased profits with this style of menu can be a significant boost to your bottom line — if you price it right.
When the price is right
Many restaurateurs believe strongly in value-based menu pricing — in other words, pricing your items in terms of their intrinsic worth and what your local market can bear. You rarely want to be the most expensive option in your category of restaurant, nor the least. Why leave money on the table? But pricing a small plate menu can be tricky — particularly in a geographic area lacking other restaurants that offer comparable menus. Ultimately, the biggest danger for the consumer is sticker shock when the check arrives, if your individual item pricing is too high. Your guest should be able to have a fully satisfying meal with small plates at (or only slightly above) the price of a traditional three-course service.
But it’s important to balance that concern with your own costs. A small plate menu should be a boon, not a bust, to your bottom line. Ideally, preparing food in smaller, more controlled portions should lower your overall food costs and produce less waste in their preparation. Because the nature of small plates encourages experimentation — with less pressure to purchase ingredients in bulk — you’ll also have more leeway in acquiring seasonal and fresh ingredients from local sources. The flip side of the coin, however, is that a small plate menu is often distinct in character from your entree or appetizer menu, so some economies of scale can be lost in ingredient purchases.
Some of that increased cost can be offset in pricing if necessary, but consider the savings you get through the efficiency of tapas-style plating as well. Most dishes served as small plate offerings take much less kitchen time, both in execution and preparation. Guests can be served their food on a rolling basis, without having to coordinate every entree for simultaneous arrival to the table. As a result, kitchen flow should smooth out, keeping your chef focused on any given plate no longer than absolutely necessary, and reducing confusion that comes from an overtaxed order or expeditor window. And small plates shouldn’t increase or reduce your rate of table turns by comparison to guests ordering from the standard entree selections.
What small plates bring to the table
So, why would a guest prefer to order small plates over standard entree service, if the price and duration of their restaurant visit is similar? Well, it can be a case of not quantity, but quality of experience. Rather than each diner burying their head into a massive plate of their own food, dishes are passed and conversation about each shared item is struck. The meal becomes less about individual consumption and more about a shared experience. Not only that, small plate ordering allows each member of a dinner party to try something new without the pressure of committing to any one thing — particularly if that would be a large portion of something unusual or out of their comfort zone. It’s about finding commonalities across the table with an uninhibited thrill of the new thrown in for good measure. And isn’t that part of why groups of people like to dine out together in the first place?
But it’s not just palate fatigue that small plate dining combats, but also creative fatigue for your kitchen staff. Who doesn’t enjoy a new challenge or variety in their workday? It gives your chef an opportunity to be more creative in devising LTOs for your small plate menu — a particularly lucrative idea to consider as the holidays approach. It also leads to surprise and delight for everyone involved: your chef could discover skills and produce results they never dreamed of; your customers will get to experience a culinary adventure they’ll want to share with friends again and again; and you’ll see the benefits in your daily tally of receipts. It’s true what they say: sometimes, good things come in small packages.
Want to explore more about designing your menu for maximum function and profit? Read on: