By Tom Nightingale
Restaurants have faced far more than their fair share of potentially crippling challenges over the last two years, from forced closures to supply chain woes, rising costs across the board, and staff shortages.
In response, they have taken to trying out numerous mitigating measures, from temporary outdoor seating to strategic menu price increases to altering their approach to shift work.
Another one is menu refinement.
Technology solutions provider Square, which partners with restaurants across Canada, recently found that more than one in five (22 per cent) of its Canadian restaurant partners have been forced to “trim the fat” in 2021, compared to 2019 levels. In fact, Canadian restaurants have removed an average of 31.7 items from their menus since the start of the pandemic, the company’s data found.
Similarly, data cited by the Globe and Mail found that restaurant menus shrank 25 per cent as business owners coped with high food prices and difficulties securing ingredients because of supply chain issues.
While this might sound like cause for alarm, menu refinement should be viewed as more of an opportunity than an obstacle, enabling more streamlined operations and providing chefs with the opportunity to perfect fewer but the best-selling signature dishes.
“Restaurants are thinking about what the best meals are in the context of the pandemic and for the diners they are serving,” Lior Koren, Project Manager for Restaurants at Square, told RestoBiz. It’s become really important to consider how you are serving the meal and interacting with diners.”
That very experience has changed strikingly in the last two years. While it’s not entirely true to say the days of intimate in-person interaction between diners and restaurants are over – that facet of the business will always continue – there is a heightened need to create an experience that caters to both dine-in and off-premises consumption.
One thing that became apparent quite quickly is that some menu items just were not suited to transportation off-site. The classic staple of fries and other fried foods is a leading example. Chefs and operators had to work out their best approach.
“Some restaurants have been doing two different menus for their on-premise and off-premise, some have had the same menu but limited items for off-premise, others are thinking about how they can utilize their kitchen space more effectively and potentially having different menus out of the same kitchen,” continues Koren.
Add that shift in the consumption landscape to the plethora of challenges facing the industry, from the cost of ingredients soaring to the plague of labour shortage, and there has been something of a blanket review of how the industry and its businesses operate.
“It’s an amazing opportunity, actually,” Koren adds.
Menu refinement and paring down offerings can be a valuable move in the climate of all of this, and many operators have been savvy in the way they have done it. Whether that’s simply removing the items that don’t travel and/or sell well or a different approach such as narrowing the focus to one particular cuisine or style, restaurants have been seeing it as a big opportunity.
“If there are pages and pages of menu to look through, diners can get lost and struggle to remember the meals that are done best,” says Koren. “Having the ability to create more custom, refined menus is a big deal.”
Not only can it improve the customer experience and allow restaurants to focus on selling their most popular dishes, but it also streamlines operations and, significantly, often means they can continue with fewer staff during a labour shortage.
Technology, as so often, is the key
As with so much, leaning on technology helps. With so many channels to a restaurant’s business in 2022 – on-premise, off-premise, website and mobile orders, kiosks, third-party delivery and aggregators, and so on – operators are increasingly looking for that “one-stop-shop” point-of-sale solution to manage their entire business.
“A lot of restaurants are adopting kitchen display systems and such things and tracking their sales better with technology,” explains Koren. “That’s not just trimming menus for the sake of trimming; it’s being ruthless around their menu. The more data a restaurant has across all channels and the more they can centralize all of that, the more they can continue to perfect their menu.”
Automating part or all of the day-to-day reinforces restaurants’ ability to withstand pressures such as labour shortages and can free up chefs and operators to do more with the menus that they have. That gives greater opportunity to, for instance, test out new or adapted items and either retain them or pull them depending on their sales and the feedback, something Koren expects to see more focus on.
Technology plays a huge role in customer transparency and understanding, too. With the increasing integration of loyalty programs, it’s easier than ever for customers to communicate back to the restaurant as part of that process. Previously, notes Koren, restaurants had very little genuine vision when they used paper-ticket systems. “Now, with kitchen display systems, they are able to know a lot more about how long certain items are taking to make, if and where there are bottlenecks in the kitchen operation. All of these things are super important to consumers.”
Expect more refinement in the future
Ultimately, there are numerous reasons why menu refinement will dovetail with automated operations in the future for restaurants. As with so much that foodservice has seen in the last couple of years, the trend was already present; it was accelerated, not created, by the pandemic.
While not everyone regularly carried out deep assessments of what’s selling best and what’s not previously, concludes Koren, that has become a requirement to run a restaurant.
“You can’t just hold inventory on hand that’s not going to be utilized. Iteration has become so vital, with a focus on refinement and improvement rather than just having a wide-ranging, all-bases-covered menu. New restaurants and reopening restaurants will likely – and should – focus on these things to perfect their kitchen operations. It can only be a net positive.”