Small Plates, Big Trends

By WILLIAM D. KOHL Principal, Greenwood Hospitality Group
Co-authored by Adam Greiner, Vice President Food & Beverage, Greenwood Hospitality

Food Takes Center Stage
Food and beverage is a hot topic. The success of the Food Network has elevated the profession of Chef to near cult status. Guests are more excited and knowledgeable about food and beverage than ever. They are dining out frequently and sharing their experience with others. In fact, sixty percent of postings on Instagram are about food and beverage. It is not enough to be good anymore. You have to be great. Your food has to be fresh, relevant and compelling or you will be out of business.
Emerging Trends
In reaction to the demands of their eager and increasingly demanding clientele, young chefs are blurring the traditional boundaries of cuisine and dining concepts. Newly emerging trends suggest strong increases in demand for ethnic and street foods. However, diners are insisting that these trends overlap their longer standing demands for local and sustainable products.
In November, 2015, the National Restaurant Association conducted its annual survey of "Hot Trends in Food and Beverage." The survey was conducted by interviewing 1,600 professional chefs and members of the American Culinary Federation. The respondents were given a list of 221 items and asked to rate each as a "Hot Trend," "Yesterday's News," or "Perennial Favorite" on their 2016 restaurant menus. "Small plate menus and restaurant concepts" we're in the Top-5 of "New trends in 2016." Eighty-one per cent of survey respondents named "Grazing and small plate sharing" instead of traditional meals as either a "Hot trend" or "Perennial favorite."
Diners are also increasingly interested in sustainability, local food sourcing and the stories behind the sourcing of food and beverages. It is incumbent upon us as responsible and relevant operators to be able to honestly communicate the location of the farm, the name of the farmer and the story behind their product. They are increasingly interested in topics such as organic and sustainable farming techniques and renewable sources of energy at the farm.
Survival Techniques
Coming out of the recession, many operators reported a trend showing an increase in appetizer sales as a percentage of entree sales. In significant numbers, diners moved to ordering a broader selection of appetizers for their meal rather than opting for the more traditional entrees. While the goal of this may have been to decrease their average spend, the result was often the opposite. If 2-4 appetizers comprise a normal meal, the average check for those appetizers often exceeded the average check for the more traditional entree. It is no coincidence that many fast-casual chains moved quickly to offer small plate menus or appetizer combinations for a set price. This fueled the advent of small plate dining.
Social Dining
Dining trends and guest preferences continued to emerge. The industry has experienced the ongoing casualization of fine dining. Guests want to eat out often and still expect great food. However, they are less interested in getting dressed up for a fine dining experience. They demand a more casual and relaxed atmosphere. They are increasingly seeking a communal dining experience or a more social environment. This can include your lobby, pool patio or lounge. This casual and relaxed atmosphere nicely lends itself to promoting small plate offerings.
The communal dining experience allows guests to pass and share a large variety of foods from bowls and platters. It also allows diners to enjoy a wider variety of foods, flavors and textures than if they were dining alone. After all, it's all about the experience.
Defining Small Plates
Small plate dining is often compared to Spanish Tapas, Greek Mezza, Italian Spuntino or American appetizer selections. While this is a natural tendency, I am a purist and I argue to the contrary. The ethnic dining styles mentioned above are only applicable to that particular style of cuisine. Each has their own style, tradition and portion sizes. American appetizers, while often shareable are generally smaller in portion than my interpretation of a viable small plate offering. Today's relevant small plate, shareable menu options are generally larger in portion than the aforementioned dining styles. They are however, smaller than most traditional entree size portions. This allows a single diner who may normally have two courses (a starter and an appetizer) to enjoy three to four different menu items while still consuming the same amount of food.
Engineering the Menu
Creating a small plate menu concept affords you the opportunity to capitalize upon many of the trends previously discussed. Embrace the Chef's creativity. Allow him to showcase his knowledge of global cuisine and to experiment with different textures, flavors and styles of cuisine. However, insist that he do this through a "culinary tip of the hat" to other cuisines and regions, not by completely changing your restaurant's concept.
There are typically two approaches one can take when designing the small plate/share plate menu.
The menu can consist completely of small plates broken into categories such as Garden, Fields and Streams, Sea, Spicy, Hearty, etc. If taking this approach, design your small plates such that two to four small plates would constitute the portion of a traditionally served appetizer and entree. Servers will need to be trained to take control of the table and to communicate the march of the menu to the table. This will be discussed in detail below. Pricing should be commensurate with this so that your average check does not decrease.
If you feel a segment of your clientele may still demand more traditional entree offerings, design a menu comprised of seventy five percent small plates portioned and priced as above. Incorporate four to six signature entrees that you can produce exceedingly well. Servers will still need to be effectively trained to communicate the steps of service. Small plate/share plate portions and plating technique should be designed to allow for ease of sharing. Present offerings such that they can be easily divided and passed at the table.
Designing the Service
Effective communication is critical to the execution of the small plate style of service. Servers have to be able to read the table and determine whether the guests are willing to share or are interested in a more traditional dining service. It is important to effectively convey the small plate style of service. Servers have to be trained to engage the table and take control of the service and flow of the evening. Small plate service is typically free flowing and results in a random delivery of dishes to the table without regard to traditional coursing and service techniques. Dishes are delivered as they are completed in the kitchen and come to the table in waves. The server needs to monitor the pace of service and consumption at the table and fire additional courses, such that they arrive on time in free flowing fashion. This technique allows the kitchen to space out preparation and to pay greater attention to detail for each dish. It also allows servers to serve and remove a few dishes prior to delivering the next wave, enhancing the spacing and comfort at the table. When the free flowing service style is effectively communicated, the diners have a clear expectation of the dining experience and can relax and enjoy a wide variety of flavors, colors, textures and varieties of food.
Tips for Spectacular Service
The small plate/share plate concept can be very service intensive. It involves the use of many more plates and service utensils than traditional dining service. The following practices help to ensure a great guest experience.
Ensure that you identify a service utensil for each small plate that is served and that it comes to the table with the plate. Each plate should have its own utensil. Stage extra, clean small plates on each table so you can easily replace the dirty ones removed. It is often helpful to design a centerpiece for the middle of the table that acts as a riser so that the extra plates can reside underneath and small plates can be placed on the riser, leaving more table space. Stage clean china, flatware and service utensils on sideboards in the dining room for ease of replacement. Staff needs to be trained to replace flatware and China diligently after each course and before delivery of the next wave.
Taking It to the Next Level
We have identified many micro-trends within the small plate category, including house-made sausages and charcuterie, vegetarian and ethnic street food inspired appetizers, sustainable seafood, oysters, poke, ceviche, bone marrow, signature devil eggs and alternatives to standard chicken wings, such as duck wings.
The dining craze also encompasses craft beer, wine and cocktails. These offerings will serve to compliment small plate concepts. The beverage approach can include small portion wine and beer flights, or craft cocktails paired with specific small plates. The staff will require training to ensure proper beverage pairing with the small plate selections.
The rise and overall appeal in small plate dining has emerged in a significant manner. The ability of restaurateurs

In adapting to this conceptual approach requires special attention to many nuances and procedures detailed above. We believe strongly that small plate and sharing menus and service will continue to foster a more congregational and relaxed approach to dining. Small plate offerings when executed well ensure that patrons will be provided a variety of food and beverage options served in a relaxed, comfortable and engaging environment. Bon Appetit!

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