Every savvy chef with their eye on the bottom line knows that adding seasonal menu items can be a huge benefit to a restaurant. From a customer perspective, those menu items are something really special, a dish that’s just for a limited time to celebrate the season.
And for the restaurant owner, it’s a great way to build on your overall brand. Because the ingredients are in season, you’re also more likely to get those ingredients local, fresh, and at a higher quality. With most seasonal ingredients locally grown, you’re more likely to get them for a better price when they’re in season — keeping your per dish cost down for special offers. These are all wins for your restaurant.
There are some hurdles to consider as well. When you’re incorporating new dishes into your menu that feature more seasonal ingredients, are you prepared to handle ordering? What do you do if you have leftovers of key ingredients not featured in any other dish? Can you anticipate what customers will want in different seasons? But perhaps more importantly, can you be creative enough to make sure you’re not left holding the bag (of greens) when seasons and tastes change?
Controlling your inventory is always a challenge for any kitchen manager, chef, or restaurant owner, but that challenge is only exacerbated when you add in seasonal recipes with seasonal ingredients. How much you need to order something new depends on your specific restaurant and how your guests tend to react to and consume special items. Knowing what their comfort zone is for experimentation or novelty helps tremendously.
But your inventory also needs to consider how your guests consume your regular menu items, too. For instance, if your steakhouse is planning to incorporate an endive salad onto your summer menu, don’t simply order regular red leaf lettuce in the same amount you would normally. There’s no profit if you sell out of endive but get left with wilting supplies of everything else. There’s no precise calculation, and careful analysis of your customers’ orders will be necessary. But going in with a sense of balance to your ordering will get you off on the right foot.
Just as important as ordering the right amount of new product is ensuring the product gets used in the right sequence. Don’t forget FIFO – first in, first out. Always make sure your kitchen staff is using ingredients purchased earlier before later ones to help avoid product from spoiling before it’s used.
This is especially important for highly perishable items like seasonal produce where you probably won’t have as much back up product on hand compared to your regular produce. Be as efficient with seasonal ingredients as you are with any other ingredient in your inventory.
In terms of efficiency, one key element in the success of seasonal menu items is this: don’t acquire seasonal ingredients for just one dish. If you choose to use the special seasonal ingredient in only one dish and that dish doesn’t resonate with your customers, then you’re left with that ingredient sitting in storage, eventually going bad. Just like your regular product, if you can find ways to use it in multiple dishes, you have a better chance to make sure the product doesn’t go to waste.
One way to do this is with daily specials. Prepare recipes in advance in case you have extra seasonal ingredients needing to be used as soon as possible. If it’s fall and you’ve over-ordered for your butternut squash risotto, having a simple (but delicious!) butternut squash soup recipe on hand for your soup of the day could literally save you from wasting the cost of excess inventory.
On top of that, think about menu cohesion. Incorporating the same element into multiple dishes — like a squash purée to go with your entrée special — makes for a much fuller experience in dining with you. And it helps you make sure you get your money’s worth on any special order.
Promoting a Seasonal Menu
Ultimately, your guests won’t know seasonal dishes are special for the time of year unless you tell them! Advertise about your new dishes on social media and your website. Just be sure to take that information off your website once it’s no longer accurate for your menu.
But perhaps the strongest method of promotion is upselling at the table. Talk to your servers at your pre-shift meetings about including those menu items as part of their introductions and how to describe them. A simple “Our Spring menu includes a delicious angel hair pasta with fennel and morel mushrooms” can help highlight the dish from the rest of the menu.
If you bought those seasonal ingredients locally, make sure your servers mention that, too. Any opportunity to capture consumer excitement about farm-to-table dining will be another way to make sure these seasonal items move.
One last tip: make sure to correctly price these seasonal dishes. You want the profits to reflect the price of their ingredients (along of course with the other elements of pricing your dishes).
Make sure you cover any special preparation required for the special menu item – this especially matter when you’re ordering whole seasonal fish that will need to be deboned, but can apply to any product that needs to be prepped with care. That extra work should be factored into the dish price.
If your kitchen staff can’t prepare the dish as you imagine it with the price your guest will pay, realign your expectations through portioning … or maybe decide if the price of the ingredient and the work it’ll take to prepare it is worth the trouble.
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