About Appetizers, Desserts and Sides
Most restaurant operators look at appetizers like any other item on the menu. This is a mistake, in my opinion, because appetizers, like desserts and sides, are incremental. In other words, they add on to the overall profits of the restaurant and don’t need to pay a share of the overhead or fixed costs in the operation.
Think of it this way … When a consumer goes into a restaurant, he or she will very likely purchase food. It’s why the consumer stopped in in the first place. So the only question that remains is what he or she will order. And what’s cool from where you’re sitting is that you can have a lot of influence on what the customer decides.
Now, you can bet the guest is going to have an entrée, salad or a sandwich of some kind. And, in fact, the entrée is the reason the customer came into your restaurant in the first place. But you don’t know if you will sell them an appetizer or dessert. And, in fact, less than 10 percent of the people who visit a restaurant actually do get an appetizer or dessert, on average. When customers order one of these items, the profit, or the leftover money after the food cost is subtracted, can go directly to the bank as long as the appetizer isn’t being substituted for an entrée.
I’ve discovered that many restaurant operators try to get the same amount of money from an appetizer as they do from an entrée or sandwich. And the mistake they’re making is, if they allowed for a higher food cost percentage on the appetizers by lowering the price, they would sell a lot more appetizers as add-on items and make a lot more money in the process.
With Biaggi’s, the first thing they noticed was they didn’t have any appetizers that showed up in the Star category. They were all either Dogs or Plow Horses. And it took a lot of explanation to get them to understand that appetizers are not supposed to be Star items. They don’t have enough plate contribution when compared to other items on the menu to compete as an entrée.
This is the same discussion we have with nearly every restaurant operator we work with. Appetizers are supposed to be before and in addition to a meal. So even if the appetizer has a 45 percent food cost, it’s still delivering an increase in the profits for the restaurant. And if you can keep the prices reasonable without dampening the quality of the finished product, you’re way better off.
Putting Pizza in Perspective
Nearly every Italian restaurant I’ve ever worked with thinks pizza is the most profitable thing they have in their restaurant. And if you look at a large pie at someplace north of $20, that would appear to be true. Most pizzas have a low food-cost percentage, usually less than 30 percent. So they do bring a pretty good buck, especially when compared to a chicken pasta dish that sells for someplace closer to $12.99 and has a 38 percent food cost. The way the restaurant looks at it, they’re taking $14 to the bank for every pizza they sell, compared to just over eight bucks for the pasta dish.
But let’s look at those profits another way. When a customer buys a pizza, they will most likely share it. And in most cases, a larger pizza is going to be shared by up to four people. But for the sake of argument, let’s settle on three. So the fourteen bucks they took to the bank was really only about half as much money as the pasta was able to pull in.
In the case of Biaggi’s, their focus was already on entrées including pasta, seafood and steaks, which made them a much more profitable Italian restaurant than most of the other Italian restaurants we’ve worked with in the past. And the scatter graph supported their focus, reporting 76 percent of their sales coming from a combination of pasta and other entrées.
Why Chefs Don’t Like Highlights
The closest I ever got to a satisfying answer to the question of why restaurant chefs don’t like using highlights on their menu was the one I got from Biaggi’s fouder Todd Hovenden: “I just don’t like ‘em.” And if you don’t like them either, that’s fine, but perhaps I can change your mind about using them anyway.
A highlight is a visual device we use on menus to call attention to items that offer a higher plate contribution in the hopes that they will increase in popularity. HotOperator.com research shows that the best way to highlight an item on a menu is through color, where the highlighted item is boxed into an area that is lighter or brighter than the color of the background.
So why highlight anything on a menu? “If a product wasn’t something we wanted to sell, it wouldn’t be on our menu at all, right?” “Everything is good on my menu.” According to the opinion of many restaurant operators, all the items on their menu should be highlighted. And from the perspective of the restaurant operator or chef, that’s probably true. Except that’s not how consumers look at menus or make decisions about what to eat at a restaurant.
When consumers go into a restaurant, they want to know what you recommend. They are looking for your advice, especially from the chef. So while everything is good, they aren’t going to order everything, they’re going to order something. And that something can have a huge impact on the overall success of your business. How well you position the items on your menu, how well you highlight them, is the secret to getting consumers to order something that will generate more profits.
In fact, it’s just rude not to help your guest decide what to eat. It’s like someone asking you for directions and you say, “I dunno, go whatever way you want.” So while everything on your menu is good, some things are better. And the better item is an item that can become famous over time and that offers you higher than average profitability.
In the case of Biaggi’s and other restaurant operators like them, I could make a very good living on the money they are leaving on the table because they are not taking advantage of helping the guest make better choices in their restaurants. In fact, I offered to skip my regular fees and get paid just on how well the highlighted items performed. They turned me down on that idea, but I would have made a helluva lot more that way than I did on the design-engineering process.
Good Design Is Essential Today
There are two parts to any great menu. There is the science part, which is the engineering process we use, and then there is the art side of the menu, which is more subjective, but every bit as important … especially today with the amount of graphics people are exposed to. In making over the Biaggi’s menu, we wanted to introduce more levels of color and texture along with design elements and details to help the consumer navigate the menu.
The final design gives Biaggi’s a more contemporary and stylish look that is a little more upscale than their original menu. At the same time, it is still very casual, which is just what the client wanted.