Finding your “vanilla” is key to success

By Scott Moore

There are hundreds of ice cream flavours, yet one of the most popular is and may well always be vanilla. One would also wager that the most popular pizza is pepperoni, regular potato chips are still the rage, and chicken noodle soup remains a top seller.

There are many other examples of top-selling flavours and styles, but the simple observation is that vanilla ice cream continues to be the most sought-after taste and consistently the most profitable. In the restaurant business, these types of popular meals are categorized as “Stars”: a consistent menu item with strong sales that significantly contributes to the bottom line.

In general, Stars can generate up to a 65 to 70 per cent profit margin as opposed to other meals that have a much lower profit of only 45 to 50 per cent. The math is a mix of lower food cost and the appetite appeal to sell at a higher price point.

After all, why do you think the majority of casual dining restaurants have 30 to 60 per cent of the same menu items?

With the financial crisis brought on by the pandemic and the continuously escalating costs of goods and services, restaurant owners and operators are urgently searching for strategies to maintain the bottom line without always passing the costs on to the guest via an increase in menu price.

Hence, the hunt for “vanilla” begins.

In many cases, operators have a varied menu and therefore carry numerous ingredients and items, which leads to extensive and ongoing staff training and longer prep and cook times. All of that can add up to a significant increase in food and labour costs.

However, today, more than ever, the guest is demanding quality rather than quantity on the menu.

The first place to discover dollars is to evaluate the menu and costing per item then delete any items that are considered “Dogs”: these meals that do not sell much or only have single-use ingredients, and do not contribute much to the bottom line should be removed or reconfigured.

Step two is to consider the actual number and type of menu offerings. Do they align with the position of the restaurant and appeal to the dominant guest demographic? If not, consider delisting some items as a smaller and more concise menu will be much more valuable and manageable for the operator and the guest.

Next, execute some market research and consultation with suppliers to discover new tastes and trends along with a variety of innovative items that have a lower food cost. Based on the findings, develop a variety of interesting yet simple recipes that use the standing ingredients and are perceived to be of a higher value from a guest’s perspective.

Finally, review the layout and design of the menu. In other words, conduct menu engineering. The meals that are the Stars should be positioned as the top two and the last items in each row/section, and the meal price should not be highlighted as the guest will subconsciously purchase on price, not appetite appeal. Remember: the menu is the messenger, so ensure it reflects the brand which in turn builds the bottom line.

Vanilla can come in many forms and flavours. The eclectic style and endless selection of restaurants are what makes the foodservice industry so dynamic and pushes all to constantly improve and innovate. All suppliers and operators should be developing, refining, and defining their own vanilla to support and enhance operations from the front to the back of the house.

Simply put, the more “vanilla” on the menu, the more sales will be scooped to the bottom line.

Scott Moore is President of Stir Creative Communications, a foodservice-focused marketing agency supporting suppliers and operators.