Menu Development for the Modern Era

Successful menu innovation means getting more out of existing resources and minimizing waste while providing customers with high-quality dining options regardless of the foodservice segment.


Menu Development for the Modern Era
Menu Development for the Modern Era. Image by Lauri Patterson
Thanks to an added focus on fewer but better-quality ingredients, sourced locally, and sustainably, menus for foodservice operators of all shapes and sizes continue to become simpler and more transparent. Ironically, embracing this trend can make operations slightly more complex. Years ago, most operators simply ordered their food from just one or two big distributors. Now, with farmers’ markets becoming more prevalant and consumer demand for more wholesome, locally farmed foods rising, many operators have a more complex ordering method and, in some cases, have had to make upgrades in equipment, particularly refrigeration, storage, and prep items.


“Food costs are rising already, but when you work more local and organic food into the menu, it can be a challenge to hit the budget,” says Greg Christian, founder of Greg Christian Consulting.

Sustainability considerations aside, at its core, menu development centers around one main idea: anytime you introduce a new menu item, it should fit with the current workflow or risk backlash on labor and operations, says Christian. And fellow consultant Karen Malody, FCSI, principal of Culinary Options agrees. “You have to test any new item,” she says.

So how do foodservice operators add value to their menus by improving ingredients and more creatively presenting their dishes? The trick in doing so is to avoid overspending on new equipment and adversely impacting existing processes while getting more from the foodservice operation’s existing resources.

Picturing the Whole Picture
“People tend to work in silos,” says Christian, who has worked with many elementary and high schools to develop new menus using more local, sustainable and healthy foods. “They compare the cost of disposables to paper costs to meat costs to vegetable costs. When a product is 25 percent more money in any one area, it’s hard to justify it.”

Instead, Christian says, it’s important to look at the big picture, see the sum of all the costs and then decide where it’s appropriate to make cuts and where investing additional resources will provide the most logical return. That can be a challenge when multiple people in a foodservice operation each handle different areas, from the food to the equipment purchasing. In this case, budgeting for new menus is a job that takes a team of individuals all working separately from each other. Communication and shared information are key, Christian says.

“I have a 60-cell spreadsheet with 400 measurable factors I give my clients when doing sustainability consulting,” Christian says. “It covers everything from the menu to the equipment, energy costs, water and sewage costs, waste removal costs and virtually all other aspects of a foodservice operation.”

When developing menus, if operators want to begin purchasing more food from local farms, they can justify the price increase by cutting elsewhere, or analyzing the savings from more energy-efficient equipment and/or operations, Christian says. “Once you have a baseline, drive that down where you can,” he says. When it comes to incorporating local foods, start small and work in increments. When it comes to schools, Christian works with each to develop a contract with a two-year, five-year and 10-year strategy, if possible, determining what percentage of the food served will become local food in the years to come.

Because menu development and ingredient sourcing can be rather vast, it is important to prioritize. Christian encourages operators to decide where they would like to begin the process. Does the operator want to serve less meat and more vegetarian options? Do they want to incorporate more local produce? Do they want cage-free eggs and other humanely-produced animal products? Do they want organics? Zeroing in on the new menu items the foodservice operation will serve and the business’ goals takes precedence, even before testing, equipment decisions and operational flow considerations.

Reinventing and Renewing Equipment
Many foodservice operators from all segments of the industry continue to develop smaller, more efficient prototypes in order to minimize real estate costs and maximize the amount of revenue-generating front-of-the-house space. And this has a direct impact on what menus the operation can offer on a full-time and limited-time basis. One easy change is to select multi-use foodservice equipment or experiment with using traditional pieces in different ways in order to cut down on space while still broadening menus.

Combi ovens are kitchen workhorses, and they open up new menu item possibilities within the same footprint as an oven or steamer, from slow-roasting salmon, braising short ribs, even baking and crisping chicken fingers.

“I’ve been to two or three restaurants in Seattle where they’ve used a sous vide machine to cook all sorts of different foods,” Malody says. “One restaurant prepared short ribs sous vide, then pulled the meat off the bone and reconstructed it into what looks like a filet. Then they put the filet back into the sous vide to reheat it, did a quick sear on both sides in a sauté pan, added a pan reduction sauce on it, and you have this gorgeous short rib meat that looks like a filet mignon with a texture like velvet.”

Using foodservice equipment in new ways like this, Malody says, also affords operators the opportunity to buy more affordable “off-cuts” of proteins like pork butt, lamb and beef shank, and beef mock-tenders, which are cut from the shoulder, while charging almost the same as a more popular chop. This results in a value-added, more intriguing menu using the same equipment but cutting down on food costs.

A Culinary Institute of America-trained chef, Christian encourages foodservice operators to get back to basics. For example, culinary staff can use ovens for more than just baking and roasting. At one school, Christian recreated a vegetable-heavy stir-fry for the students using a convection oven. “We chopped all the vegetables, put them on a sheet pan and popped them in a 450 degree F oven, didn’t touch them for 20 minutes, and added rice and chicken. It may not be gourmet cooking, but it’s not packaged food anymore, either.”

Christian also worked with staff to create made-from-scratch quesadillas. “We wrapped the tortillas and popped them in the food warmer at 170 degrees F so they steamed themselves a little,” he says. “Then we sautéed some onions and peppers, added some pre-cooked chicken and made a homemade cheese sauce. When the kids came through the line, we threw a tortilla on the plate, ladled on the chicken and sauce, folded it in half and that’s it. It’s not as crispy as most quesadillas, but already, we’re cooking more food from scratch with the equipment they already have. We figured out how to create 10 new entrees using the same equipment the school already had.”

For K-12 schools, which don’t purchase equipment that often, this is a major cost advantage, and it helps them fall in line with new dietary guidelines requiring schools to serve healthier menus. A switch like this would seem to cause an increase in labor, but that wasn’t the case. Instead, Christian helped refocus the staff to do different tasks. Before, school cafeteria workers spent most of their days — 19 hours in one case — unwrapping bulk packaged foods and repackaging them into smaller, individual portions.

Instead, Christian retrained the foodservice staff, many of whom had been there for years, to chop vegetables the old-school way, which can help reduce produce costs. He also showed staff how to use food processors and mixers to prep bulk vegetables. When sourcing ingredients locally, nothing arrives precut. That means staff will need better knives and knife skills and that vegetable choppers, processors and the like are finding a place in these kitchens again.

Simpler Solutions
Variety may seem like the easiest way to revamp a menu, but that’s not always the case, and in some instances, it can be detrimental to a kitchen’s flow, says Susan Wilkie, owner of Wilkie Enterprises Inc. and vice president, strategic planning, at DM&A Webb Food Service Design & Consulting.

“I’ve seen college foodservice operations with four or five entrée choices at a given meal period, on top of sandwiches, salads, pastas and pizzas,” she says. “You don’t need all those choices. You need to focus on the right number of points of service that meet the speed of service you require, but also the right amount of variety and option. You need more variety in concept, not 12 options at lunch in residential dining.”

By variety in concept Wilkie means taking core stations, like the pizza station with the wood-burning oven or salad bar, and expanding the toppings and add-ons there. Or, taking a flattop grill to cook tacos and Mexican food one day, Asian stir-fry the next, and breakfast for dinner the next. That way, you’re not introducing a new process or station or equipment, but you’re still expanding on the food offerings available.

At the same time, when it comes to younger diners, like those that populate university campuses, foodservice operators can’t just serve spaghetti and meatballs and call it Italian, Wilkie adds. Dishes must be region-specific, drill down to native foods from local communities and show more authenticity than ever before. A great example of this, Wilkie says, was at one of the dining facilities at Albright College that did a Mardi Gras-themed dinner but that was more than brightly colored beads and king cake. “They had a bounty of regional foods, like alligator, oysters, frog legs, crawfish, and jambalaya,” she says. “I talked to many of the students afterward and they thought the dinner was amazing.”

Talking to the students, to find out where they spend their money at home and in their local communities helps operators clue in on what they’re looking for, Wilkie says.

Planned-Out Presentation
Creative presentation and thinking of new ways to work with dishware, tabletop and other accessories can add value to a menu without complicating an operation or increasing cost, according to Malody.

“It’s a combination of plate presentation and building drama on the plate with different cuts of meat and vegetables and grains and fruits,” she says. Focusing on more creative presentation of menu items can also help scale down on protein portion sizes and scale up on vegetables and grains to cut costs and touch on a growing consumer interest in healthier foods and lifestyles, Malody says.

That also means capitalizing on trends like small plates by literally using smaller plates in addition to reducing portion sizes. An expanded small plates menu or smaller portion offerings like balanced snacks or mini-meals offer the opportunity to both reduce portion sizes to cut food costs and offer greater menu variety. In traditional restaurant settings, smaller dishes are also easier and quicker to prepare in some cases, and they can come out tapas style without having to be rigorously timed with larger courses.

Expanding on a menu may also involve combining sweet with savory in ways never before done. Wilkie cites a food operation at a nationally recognized amusement park, where she served as a consultant for years, that uses classic waffle irons to offer not only sweet Belgian waffles but also savory options in place of bread. Culinary staff stuff these savory items with chicken and other proteins for a new take on a quick-serve lunch. Another operation focused on skillets — mammoth cast iron pans loaded with fresh vegetables, sausages, corn succotash and other wholesome ingredients that are cooked from scratch and served piping hot.

“These are the perfect examples of a made-for-you-fresh meal with added drama and excitement, and the speed of service is still terrific,” Wilkie says. “They can serve 100 customers an hour, and the perceived value is fabulous. Value is seen with the eye. You may not have the most beautiful food, but if it’s clean, garnished, fresh, bountiful and well maintained, then your food is going to come a long way and deliver that value.” That means not only using interesting servingware, but the items should be clean and presentable.

Thought-Out Testing
A skillet-based menu item may be a creative and fun idea, but it has to work if an operation decides to introduce that concept. “You have to have the equipment and labor to meet the product specs,” Wilkie says. “You need a location where you have exhaust available, a source for gas, someone to man the grill, and then you need to forecast what the cost of providing this service is, including the costs of gas, equipment, hood energy usage and labor if you’re developing something like this for the first time.”

Once that’s accomplished, though, a skillet or similar made-to-order, flattop stir-fry setup can offer multiple menu offerings in one space, from Asian to Italian to Mexican and other cuisines and flavors, Wilkie says.

For individual or smaller menu additions, like new cuts of meat, many commodity boards offer testing at their on-site kitchens, Malody says. “Pork and beef in particular have amazing information on their websites regarding cooking and preparation instructions. They also have a surplus of certain parts of the animal and are always figuring out new ways to work with them. You can put an entire chuck roast in a cook-and-hold oven and let it cook for 12 hours and have it be fork tender with tons of flavor, and you barely did anything.”

In addition to commodity boards, some manufacturers, reps, and and dealers offer on-site kitchens for new menu item testing to see how dishes coordinate with certain equipment. Mapping out all the steps it takes staff to create a new dish is critical, Malody says.

Managing Waste
Managing waste is another important part of new menu development, according to Malody. “Proper menu engineering means building avoidance of waste into what you’re doing,” she says. Cross-utilization of ingredients, making sure there’s a place for everything, if not two places — these are the strategies that help justify new ingredients and new foods.

“In today’s world, you’ve got to manage waste if you want to make a profit,” Malody says. With food costs rising, there is no reason to source specific six-ounce chicken breasts for one dish at a time. Buy in bulk and train staff to use unusual cuts like bacon ends and chopped chicken pieces for the same processes like making salads and sandwichs and topping pizzas. Trimmings should be used for soups and purees.

“It’s about using what you have on hand, with the resources you have,” Malody says.

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