How a global pandemic will reinvent the restaurant menu
Over the past few weeks – really since states began enforcing dining hall closures – one of the most common advice for restaurants has been to rethink their menus. Between a global pandemic, a looming recession and an unprecedented disruption to daily life, it seems the one element of restoration operations that has hardly ever changed is suddenly in need of a major overhaul.
This point was reiterated yesterday during The Spoon’s COVID-19 virtual summit. In particular, two important points emerged: the menu must teach consumers to eat healthier and it must be redesigned for the off-premises format.
Robert Egger, the founder of LA Kitchen, spoke about the need to rethink the menu at times like these and focus on reducing portions.
âThe tyranny of the plate is something we have to reject,â he said during a panel with Spoon editor Mike Wolf and chef Mark Brand. He was specifically talking about the four-compartment meal that represents the standard American diet, where âthe big chunk of meatâ is accompanied by vegetables and starches.
Egger’s suggestion is that restaurants and institutional foodservice companies move away from this format and turn to menu templates that create more integrated meals that are plant-based and rely on alternative proteins for nourishment. Think cereal bowls or falafel bowls served by chains like Sweetgreen or Tender Greens, two companies Egger referred to in his speech. These, he says, can give customers a ârobust and tasty replacementâ for the standard American diet that relies so heavily on animal protein and gigantic portions.
The brand accepted. âIf you keep feeding the beast, which is literally obesity and diabetes, you are already part of the problem,â he said. âWhy are you opening a restaurant to kill people? “
Instead of reacting to what they think customers want to see on the menu, restaurants should instead try to guide customers to choices that will be best for them. That could mean offering an alternative protein to chicken or not serving as an avocado toast in an area that doesn’t grow avocados. This certainly includes serving smaller portions and stepping away from what Eggar called âthe whining plateâ.
In many cases, this will also mean preparing foods that can travel easily. With restaurant dining rooms closed for the time being, businesses need to quickly switch to offsite models that serve take out and take out. A mantra I have heard often in my conversations over the past few weeks is âshrink your menuâ to make it more friendly for the offsite format.
Moving your menu to an offsite setting is more than just a matter of uploading your existing menu to Postmates et al. Restaurants need to consider which foods travel well and how they can offer variety without inducing decision paralysis, where a customer sees so many options they freeze.
At yesterday’s event, Chowly’s Sterling Douglass said there is no magic number of menu items when it comes to offering choice without this decision paralysis. Rather, it is about simplifying the choices themselves. For example, an item called “Chicago-style Hot Dog” will be selected more than a hot dog which requires customers to go one step further by selecting “Chicago-style” from a list of styles.
And, of course, the food must travel well from the restaurant to the customer’s house. This is where Eggar’s grain bowls could prove to be invaluable. A plate of chicken parmesan sliding around a can and getting lukewarm every minute doesn’t exactly make a mouth-watering take-out order. A bowl of greens, quinoa, and other items meant to be mixed makes a lot more sense when it comes to food that travels. My bet is that it’s also cheaper to produce.
As restaurants continue to build and modify their models to accommodate this weird new world or social distancing, narrowing the menu down to a few simpler, healthier options might prove to be the most beneficial thing for your health. of all, not to mention their wallet.