Even before warmer weather is upon us and schools start letting out — giving college students and families more time to enjoy meals outside the house — your restaurant should start planning for the summer season. You want to entice new and returning guests to come out to your place and enjoy themselves while the weather is so nice.
There is an endless variety of options for adjusting your menu for the season, but here are a few trends we consistently see pop up in preparation for summer.
1. Farmers Market Ingredients
It can be a very smart business move to take advantage of farmers markets in your area. You can get great fresh ingredients in season and then advertise to your customers that you proudly use local ingredients at your restaurant.
The catch is that you’ll also have to anticipate what the farmers market is going to have available. This is where building relationships with the vendors come in handy. If you get to know the local farmers and artisans at the market you can start getting an idea ahead of time what produce will be like from month to month. You can also tell farmers market vendors what you’re planning to buy from them so they can prepare in advance to have what you need.
It all comes down to starting those conversations at the beginning of the season and then doing a lot of networking throughout the summer and beyond. It’s not a short-term solution — it’s a long-term investment in building professional relationships.
2. Summer Specials
The summer season allows you to also explore new specials. After all, bringing appropriately seasonal flavors into your dishes can be especially enticing for guests.
If you’re going to the farmers market to pick up ingredients for your special, make sure to be flexible with your plan if the produce you need isn’t there. If you have a yellow squash recipe but can’t find any, consider substituting fresh green zucchini.
Also think of your specials in terms of “stars and plowhorses.” Star items are the ones with high popularity and high profitability. They’re ordered often and give you the most profit after food and labor cost. Obviously, you want to see as many of these items on your menu as possible — and if a special ends up being one of those stars, consider incorporating it into your menu.
Plowhorses are the ones that are high in popularity but lower in profitability. For these items, see if you can adjust the ingredients so that they are more profitable without lowering overall quality (and lowering the popularity of the dish in the process). While testing out adjusted plowhorse items as specials, you can see if those adjustments can turn it into a star.
Salads are very popular in the summer when guests are looking for something fresh and light compared to the warm and heavy staples of the winter months. Look to seasonal produce like endive, butter lettuce, cucumbers, hearts of palm, and sugar snap peas to create summer salads that go beyond the iceberg lettuce standard.
Choosing seasonal vegetables is not only a good way to incorporate summer flavors into your menu, but they’re also likely to be the least expensive in summer because they are in season. Plus, there’s the added benefit of adding the bright colors of those vegetables to your summer menu.
Don’t forget about fruit — it’s not just for traditional fruit salads. Blackberries, peaches, elderberries, Asian pear, and cherries are all fair game among your leafy greens, but they are far from the only fruit you can incorporate into special summer salad fare.
And since it is a fruit, you can never go wrong with the many varieties of summer-picked tomatoes. Talk to your cooks, get creative with your salad choices, and see what happens!
4. Grilled Meat and Vegetables
Summer is the prime time of year for grill and char flavors. Steak, kabobs, barbeque chicken, and more can be intriguing additions to a summer menu, especially if you’re in a city area where many apartment renters can’t keep an outdoor grill at home.
But don’t forget about the vegetarians! Grilling vegetables can be a great way to elevate the flavor of meatless dishes and help those with dietary restrictions (or who just prefer to eat vegetarian) still enjoy a great dinner out with their meat-eating friends.
Also think about the kinds of fruits you can grill — pineapples, plums, bananas, and peaches put on the grill can all be fair game for desserts or sweet accompaniments to savory dishes. Thinking outside the box with grilling can be a great selling point for guests wanting to try something new and innovative this summer.
Fish and shellfish is easier to get (and get cheaper) in the summer when so much popular seafood is in season and deliveries are easier to make over long distances. Guests are also thinking of fresh, light dishes now, which definitely can include fish.
Take advantage of the warm weather by creating cold seafood dishes, like ceviche, gravlax with capers, shrimp cocktails, or a whole chilled shellfish platter. Also don’t forget your grilling options — you can offer a baked or grilled fish served whole for an appealing presentation. And nothing beats the classic grilled salmon.
Depending on your restaurant’s location, ask your fish vendor about local/lake fish in season during the summer. Like with locally-grown produce, local fish can be a great selling point to your guests!
6. Seasonal Drinks
Guests want to be refreshed when they go out to eat during the summer months, so offering seasonal drinks can be a great way to quench that thirst. Anything from margaritas and vodka lemonade, from mojitos to sangria, piña coladas, and mint juleps are free game.
If you want to ease your bartending staff into the additions slowly, you can start with a cocktail of the day to test each out. If one in particular is a hit, include it on the summer-long menu! And if you make the cocktail unique to your restaurant (by adding a special garnish or muddling an herb into the concoction), consider promoting it as your cocktail of the summer.
But don’t stop at alcoholic mixes! Think about your younger guests, the designated drivers, and those who just generally choose not to drink. They should have more options than soda, water, or iced tea.
Create fun juice spritzers, juice mixes, mocktails, or even smoothies for your guests to the enjoy during the hottest months of the year — especially if your restaurant has a patio where it gets warm on sunny days. And if some of those juice mixes do well, you can always experiment with making them into alcoholic drinks, too!
Want more ideas about how to prepare for summer?