Whether you think it’s an extravagant dining experience or an opportunity to showcase your restaurant, offering a tasting menu is consistently a top trend among the some of the most highly-acclaimed restaurants. Adding a tasting menu to your restaurant’s repertoire isn’t just an attempt to gain critics’ attention.
The benefits of this business strategy also extend to your staff and your guests. A tasting menu gives your kitchen more creativity and inventory control to make costly ingredients more feasible to use. Guests also see tasting menus as a more elevated offering that they’re willing to splurge on, an opportunity for a deeper connection with the chef, and a memorable dining experience overall.
It’s true that tasting menus tend to fit certain restaurants’ business plans over others. It generally makes more sense for fine dining establishments than family restaurants. If it fits your brand and your business objectives, tasting menus can be a worthy investment to improve your restaurant margins. But the higher price tag of a tasting menu means that adding one requires careful planning and strategy.
Follow these seven do’s and don’ts for bringing your restaurant to the next level with a successful tasting menu.
Do: Showcase Your Kitchen Talent and Ingredients
A tasting menu is a prime opportunity to demonstrate your team’s culinary expertise and the innovation that sets your restaurant apart from your competition. In the execution of tasting menus, your team needs to also demonstrate a higher skill level required for these more technically advanced dishes, precise plating, and careful timing.
Focusing on a set menu of smaller plates requires your chefs to flex their creative muscles to develop a multi-course culinary experience. The menu’s structure also allows chefs to use more unique and prized ingredients (like truffles or saffron) that would otherwise be expensive for entrees but can be included more thoughtfully in smaller portions on tasting menus.
For example, Monello in Minneapolis offers a pasta tasting menu featuring ingredients like blue crab, lobster, and braised rabbit, as well as a chef’s tasting menu including sea bass with caviar and dry aged beef ribeye.
Don’t: Forget about Occasions
Customers who would shell out the extra cash for a tasting menu are looking for an extra special experience, possibly celebrating a birthday, anniversary, or another life event. Make sure that everyone on your team, from the back to the front of house, is fully dedicated to making each guest’s tasting menu experience a memorable one.
There are also factors outside your restaurant that could influence the dining occasion. If your restaurant is located in a theater district, your guests may want to make restaurant reservations in conjunction with their tickets to a show. For these occasions, a longer tasting menu might not fit the customers’ needs.
Acadia in Chicago, for instance, offers both a 10-course and a five-course tasting menu, so those with limited time can still enjoy the tasting experience at this Michelin-starred restaurant.
Do: Tell a Story with the Menu
Unlike an a la carte menu, a tasting menu is a cohesive experience through which the guest is guided by your chef. Each course needs to seamlessly flow from the previous plate and into the following dish. Consider incorporating a theme or your chef’s inspiration to help link the courses into one memorable dining experience.
If your chef feels connected to a particular regional cuisine, the tasting menu could feature dishes that blend these culinary traditions with modern techniques and elevated preparations. Highlighting locally-sourced products or seasonal flavors can also help tell a story.
At Bluehour in Portland, Chef Chris Carrier offers a 10-course tasting menu featuring seasonally-inspired selections and more unique proteins as the chef’s specialty, like sweetbreads and wild boar.
Don’t: Overfeed Your Customers
With a 10- or 12-course menu, there is a risk that your guests could leave your restaurant feeling bloated rather than pleasantly satisfied. Even a four-course menu could be too filling if the portions are too large or every dish is too rich.
Tasting menu courses have inherently small portions, but heartier flavors can fill you up faster. If your guests are too full halfway through the tasting menu, you could end up with wasted ingredients and dissatisfied customers who felt like they didn’t get their money’s worth because they couldn’t finish every course. Consider balancing the menu with some lighter courses to cleanse your guests’ palates and prevent overindulgence.
If you offer wine pairings with the menu, be sure to factor this into the potential to overindulge. Just as you control portion size in your dishes, make sure you are controlling the volume of each wine selection.
Do: Ensure Your Servers are Attentive and Knowledgeable
Customers who order a tasting menu are expecting an elevated level of service along with their refined courses. A tasting menu is a special occasion, so extra care needs to be included when your guests are choosing to celebrate with your restaurant.
Before a new course is served, the previous course needs to be completely cleared and fresh table settings must be brought. Each course should presented with a full description of what’s on the plate. This information may have been included on the menu, but it’s likely that guests will forget the details a few courses into the menu.
In addition to describing the dish, your servers also need to express the story that the chef wants to share with the menu. They are your guests’ guide through this special dining experience, so how your servers present each course will prime your guests’ taste buds and set the right expectations.
Don’t: Pace Courses Out Too Far
While attentive service is key for tasting menus, there’s a line between letting the guest get a complete tasting menu experience and dragging the meal out for hours. From an operational perspective, the longer a tasting menu experience, the less table turns you could have in a night’s service, which in the extreme decreases the potential boost to your profit margin.
In terms of customer satisfaction and increasing customer loyalty, if courses are paced unevenly or too long, your customers could be fighting your staff from clearing the plates before they’ve finished or left twiddling their thumbs waiting for the next course to arrive. Both situations can leave a sour taste from an otherwise delicious meal. Your front and back of house teams will need to be completely in sync on the execution of a tasting menu to get the timing down just right so your guests will want to return for more memorable meals.
Do: Continually Evaluate and Update Your Menu
The vision of a tasting menu lies with the chef, but you still need to carefully evaluate the ROI (return on investment) of your tasting menu and factor in seasonality. By presenting and clearing the same plates for each course, your servers can provide valuable feedback on your tasting menu.
Is there a point in the meal when the guests stop finishing their dishes? This could indicate a need to cut down portions or replace an early course with a lighter alternative. Do your guests rave to your servers about your amuse bouche? The success of this first bite could inspire the chef to build a new tasting menu around this taste.
Besides these tips, consider how you can accommodate guests who would choose your tasting menu but have certain dietary needs. For instance, Fleet Street Kitchen in Baltimore offers a vegetarian option along with their six-course tasting menu.
For other thoughts on planning out your offerings, take a look at how menu design can affect your bottom line: