Beef, pork, chicken, seafood, and so on are often the most expensive items on the plate, but with food costs rising even faster in recent months, every operator ought to have some strategies for lowering costs on these traditional center-of-the-plate ingredients.
Not coincidentally, many of the following pointers will also convey a healthier image to your menu, and help you with product utilization.
1. Reduce portion sizes – With snacking on the upswing, many consumers are replacing three big squares with smaller, more frequent meals. Reducing portion sizes—and perhaps even menu prices, depending on the circumstances—not only saves money on ingredient costs but also addresses the growing trend toward snacking. This approach can also serve to decrease the overall calorie and fat content of menu items—an important consideration now that menu labeling has become such an issue.
Leverage bar menus, shareable specialties, and half-portion options, as well as such selections as salads or pasta with just a few ounces of protein.
2. Focus on produce and grains– For many chefs, vegetables have become the focus of menu specialties. They’re more creative (how many ways can you cook a steak after all?); they enjoy a healthy nutritional image, and are also perfect for seasonal and local/farm-to-table positioning. Most of all, though, they’re lower in cost, all of which adds up to real value on the menu. The best news? Customers, including non-vegetarians, are looking for them. Growing awareness of Mediterranean-style diets and USDA dietary guidelines (which suggest that three-quarters of every plate comprise grains, fruits, and vegetables) underscore the health benefits of the move to less meat. And with so many interesting fruits, vegetables, and grains available, there’s no shortage of them.
Compose menus and plates with an emphasis on creative side dishes and substantial garnishes, like artisanal pickles.
3. Experiment with “lesser cuts”– Not every piece of meat can be a premium cut—a chop, tenderloin, or boneless chicken breast. It’s not possible, and it’s not even all that interesting, especially with a pricey bell-ringer like beef. In fact, many chefs admit to being more inspired by a country sparerib or a culotte steak than they would ever be by a pork loin or a Porterhouse. These prime cuts, good as they can be, are better when cooked simply, whereas a piece of flanken short ribs, a chicken thigh, ground pork or a lamb breast that needs to be marinated, braised, or otherwise manipulated can be much more fun for both the cook and the customer. By the same token, underutilized fish such as redfish, mackerel, wild keta salmon, or carp is not only more sustainable but it’s also become increasingly more desirable than products like swordfish and crabmeat.
Introduce new cuts and preps as featured specials and limited-time offerings (LTOs) to gauge customer interest.
4. Leverage leftovers – Trim, overproduction, odd sizes, and other “leftovers” are far too valuable not to turn them into saleable new menu items. They can even be planned for, in the sense that tonight’s double production of Yankee pot roast becomes tomorrow’s Reuben sandwich or beef barley soup. Use broken shrimp and the ends of fish filets in tacos. Shred cooked meat for ravioli or vegetable stuffings. Unsold rotisserie chicken can be repurposed in a spring roll appetizer or salad. Sliced pork makes an excellent sandwich, especially when treated to an exciting sauce. You get the idea.
Spend a little time developing second uses for some of your protein-based menu items.
5. Round out all your menu categories – With many customers grazing their way through the menu, the traditional entrée section holds less importance. A distinctive selection of appetizers, soups, salads, sandwiches, snacks, and side dishes not only allows customers to mix and match their own custom meal, but these kinds of items often are less dependent on expensive proteins and carry lower food costs. A two- to four-ounce portion of steak would never fly as an entrée, for instance, but it’s more than enough in a flavorful salad or a sandwich. Put that same portion of meat into an appetizer satay, and you also open up the possibility that your guests will order additional items to build a whole meal.
If it’s appropriate for your menu concept, add sandwiches and burgers to your entrée selection for an item that’s lower cost—to both you and your customers.
6. Investigate alternative sources of protein – Not for vegetarians, per se, but for any customer who’s looking for something different or a little lighter. This includes recipes centered on eggs, cheese, beans and lentils, protein-rich grains like quinoa, and other plant-based proteins such as tofu and seitan. This is especially true for meatless versions of popular menu items. Veggie burgers, for instance—whether patties or whole portabella mushroom caps—appeal to dieters and the budget-conscious, as well as to customers who eschew meat for ethical reasons. Bean and cheese dishes can be flavorful, unusual, and exciting; in fact, many ethnic cuisines heavily feature specialties that are meatless, or that use meat as more of a condiment. And many egg recipes are versatile enough for every daypart.