By now, everyone is aware that there are enormous challenges with the supply chain – brought on by the pandemic and post pandemic rush to return to normal. It is another perfect storm of realities that seem to have brought this about: scaling down of production from the farmer, rancher and fisherman during the time when American restaurants were shut down, interrupting the cycle of growth and production as a result, a dramatic re-opening of said restaurants without time to gradually scale up to meet demand, a significant short fall in staff for a plethora of reasons that warrant a separate study (this includes farm workers, meat cutters, warehouse employees, commercial fishermen, and truck drivers), and a scary change in the attitude of hospitality workers who are not inclined to return to the industry that failed to listen to many of their concerns. So, here we are facing overnight demand (it’s like everyone turned on the open switch at the same time) that exceeds supply and our ability to deliver.
Prices of raw materials and labor, of course, have gone through the roof and there is no end in sight. Beef, poultry, pork, seafood of all types, fresh produce, dairy products, and paper supplies are, in some cases, double what they were a year ago! On top of this – restaurants are offering wages that were unheard of pre-pandemic and still employees are not inclined to return to kitchens and dining rooms. There is obviously a need for some type of systemic change, but no one seems to know exactly what that might be at this time.
How does a chef or restaurateur approach the challenges of a public that wants to return to restaurants that are unable to meet the rapid growth in demand and a supply chain that is making it nearly impossible to get the ingredients they need and afford the ones that are available? The quick fix may just be a dramatic change in how we plan and present our menus. This may be something that will self-correct in a few months, or it could very well be the way that we operate from this point on. The important reality is that we MUST MAKE CHANGES NOW!
The days of the fixed menu for restaurants should come to a halt. Without a clear understanding of where ingredient costs are going tomorrow and next month restaurants cannot afford to be shackled to a menu that is out of control.
It may make sense for restaurants to switch directions and move towards a fluid menu that relies on a style of cooking rather than fixed, specific menu items. Chefs may very well need to plan menus that change every week or two, or in some cases even daily based on availability and price. This will, of course, make it far more challenging to control quality and consistency, but with a movement towards on-going training and quality assurance – it can be done.
Forget the beautiful menus printed by a local craftsperson or laminated to build in easy re-use; if you are not already printing menus in-house then it is time to invest in some software and a quality printer for your office.
Prices will also be fluid because they MUST reflect a restaurants ability to maintain its margins. So weekly menus and appropriate changes to pricing will need to tie in with solid menu planning and purchasing that allows a pricing structure to stay within a range that your guests are accustomed to.
It may also mean that certain menu staples that everyone accepts as “always present” need to be pushed aside for the time being. A menu that depends on limited supply, higher end ingredients may need to look to a different model. Less beef and more chicken, fewer shellfish items and standards like cod, haddock, sole, or halibut may need to lean more towards farmed fish or less popular species. There are also even more reasons to work with local farmers, at least in-season, to find the produce you need to execute a fluid menu.
Big menus are far too difficult to manage at a time when the supply chain is challenged, prices are not stable, and the labor market is stretched. Smaller menus with changing content are the way to go. Instead of eight appetizers – look to three or four. Rather than a dozen or so entrée choices – rely on six or even less. Make sure that everything is focused on hitting your essential categories so that most guests can find something they like.
Changing a restaurants dependance on large kitchen teams or a full cadre of servers is something that will be very challenging, but necessary. Since these employees are simply not available, restaurants will need to find ways to do more with fewer hands and not rely as much on a high level of talent to do so. This means that the menu will become the key to success. Setting up systems for the pre-production, preparation, finishing and plating of beautiful and delicious food that can be executed consistently and quickly will be the way to go.
Create excitement over “what’s next”. People are certainly creatures of habit and ambassadors for the familiar. This is one of the reasons why so many menus remain the same for years or even decades. Knowing that an item that you like will always be there is comforting and let’s face it – people don’t really like change. Unfortunately, it is change that will allow the restaurant of today and tomorrow to thrive. For this to be effective it is necessary for chefs and restaurants to build excitement for what makes the average guest uncomfortable. Trust becomes the most essential ingredient in the chef’s repertoire. “Don’t disappoint” is the key objective in building a fluid menu. The minute that a guest finds disappointment in a menu selection is the moment you lose their trust and likely their return business.
Chefs need to understand their customers even better than before. Menu items need to reflect protection of this trust even more than the desires of the chef to create something that suits his or her need to be expressive. One thought might be to take a lesson from some creative wine lists that I have seen where the chef states: “If you liked (a popular item from the past on a restaurant menu) then you will love (a new item being offered). Now keep in mind that this means that the chef is offering a quiet guarantee – but one that feeds off that “trust” that is so important.
Finally, this is the perfect time for the chef or the restaurateur to be even more visible to the guest than ever before. Stand up for your menu, put yourself front and center, talk with the guests, read their reactions, pay attention, answer questions, encourage stepping out of comfort zones, and making adjustments where needed – in the moment. Impatience, confusion, indecision, and uncomfortableness can be addressed directly avoiding disappointment and late-night angry comments on Trip Advisor.
Remember – desperate times call for desperate action (not reaction).
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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