On The Sidelines No More
All across the nation, vegetables are moving off the entree plate and into the spotlight with creative presentations all their own.
It's another example of something old that's new and fresh again. Many cuisines have a tradition of offering vegetables in a separate menu category. Italy, like many Mediterranean countries, takes pride in its abundance of fresh vegetables, and menus their feature a "contorni" (side dishes) section, which includes simple vegetable preparations highlighting freshness and seasonality. In France, vegetables are bought fresh at the market each day and each has a repertoire of cooking methods, from rustic to haute. Less meat-centered cuisines, like Asian and Japanese, have long featured vegetable dishes that are unusual and creative enough to stand alone.
Here in the U.S., restaurants in all categories are waking up to the advantages of turning vegetables from an afterthought into an asset. QSR's have realized the need to offer more menu items to satisfy customer demands for variety and health. Wendy's is featuring salads, fresh fruit, baked potatoes and even chili as side dish alternatives. At the other end of the scale, Craft, a high-end Manhattan restaurant, allows diners to build a meal by selecting both proteins and vegetables from cooking method-based categories - roasted, sauteed, braised and pureed, with separate headings for mushrooms, potatoes, grains and beans.
Sides make sense in mid-scale restaurants as well. At A16, a popular new Italian restaurant in San Francisco, you'll find green beans with garlic and anchovies offered in their own "side dish" category, along with potatoes with marjoram and celery, and cannellini beans with garlic and oregano. Wildfire, a Chicago area chophouse chain, adds wood-roasted mushroom caps and steamed broccoli with herb butter to the usual steakhouse mix of potato dishes and creamed spinach.
Chefs are always looking for new ways to please their customers and give free rein to their creativity at the same time. Small plates have become wildly popular because they allow diners to try a number of different tastes in one meal, and chefs love the opportunity to showcase unusual ingredients or flavor combinations in a format that encourages diners to take a risk. Side dishes offer a similar opportunity for chefs to experiment with and for customers to sample.
And just as small plates can increase a check average by replacing one entree with several smaller dishes, side dishes can build profits by elevating vegetables from their lowly status on the entree plate giving them special treatment that justifies a separate charge. At Craft, a vegetable side can go for up to twelve dollars, on top of entree prices that can be as much as forty-eight dollars for a sirloin steak!
Increasingly, diners like to feel "in control" of their food choices. Dieters are a real challenge with their demands for substitutions and special preparations, and many operations have responded by adopting more flexible menu formats. And separate side dish category is welcomed not just by dieters, but also by vegetarian and health-conscious diners trying to eat their "five-a-day."
A menu with a flexible format where diners feel comfortable to pick and choose and build their own meal works best for selling in side dishes. A wait staff that is familiar with the menu offerings and able to suggest sides that go well with the rest of the meal is the most effective tool for increasing sales. Well-trained waiters will also suggest sides as an extra for the table to share, or as a way to sample a new taste.
While sides offer chefs the opportunity to play with flavors, it's important that they mesh stylistically with the rest of the menu. A "down home" restaurant like Philadelphia's Savannah Soul Food Bar has ten sides to choose from - including curried okra, Cajun fries and collard greens - all of which complement the ribs, gumbo and meatloaf typical of their fare. P.F. Chang's sides, as expected, play with Asian flavors in items like Sichuan style asparagus, coconut curry stir-fried vegetables and snap peas stir-fried with garlic, while cumin fries, sauteed plantains and garlic-mashed yucca round out the pan-Latin menu at Ciudad in Los Angeles.
If you think sides would add excitement and profit to your menu, but you don't have the labor or space for the prep involved, Simplot's RoastWorks vegetables and potatoes can provide the building blocks for customer-pleasing side dishes that cut out the kitchen prep. If your operation features wood or charcoal grilling, but you can't sacrifice the grill space for vegetables, products like Flame-Roasted Peppers and Onions can add smoky savor to side dishes like ratatouille, a perfect complement to grilled fish. Simplot's Mashed Potatoes can be personalized with horseradish for a steakhouse side, cilantro and lime on a Nuevo Latino menu, or saffron to go with Med Rim cuisine. Or add artichoke hearts or mushrooms to RoastWorks Potato Medley for a rustic bistro side dish.
However you prepare them, let side dishes shine with their own section on your menu, creative presentations and staff training to encourage ordering, and you'll see happy customers and a healthy bottom line.
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