What Happens in the Back of the House When the Menu Changes?

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Karen Malody
Karen Malody

Founder and Owner

Caroline Perkins October 25, 2021
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One strategy that operators use to attract new customers and satisfy existing ones is changing their menus. They might add a new item or introduce a new, trendy preparation. Or they might switch to an entirely new cuisine. The question is: How do these changes affect the back of the house? Does the kitchen have to adapt to produce the new features?

One strategy that operators use to attract new customers and satisfy existing ones is changing their menus. They might add a new item or introduce a new, trendy preparation. Or they might switch to an entirely new cuisine. The question is: How do these changes affect the back of the house? Does the kitchen have to adapt to produce the new features?

The answer is yes and no.

A single menu item change often requires different ingredients but does not always require any adaptation in the existing kitchen setup. “When promising a menu change, most chefs work the change around existing equipment, creating no need — or at least minimal need — to make any back-of-the-house changes,” says John Egnor, founder and president of JME Hospitality, a foodservice design firm based in Columbus, Ohio.

These days, adding bacon to anything is a winner in the customers’ eyes. Likewise, restaurants featuring plant-based alternatives to burgers or other protein substitutes will attract some consumers. But these changes do not require a back-of-the-house adaptation. These additions would all be cooked in the same manner as the existing menu items they enhance or replace.

Some recent examples of new items that feature different ingredients without the need for new equipment or processes include Jack in the Box’s Tiny Tacos, Wendy’s Pretzel Bacon Pub Cheeseburger, Cracker Barrel’s Maple Bacon Grilled Chicken, Applebee’s Buffalo Chicken Wedge Salad and California Pizza Kitchen’s Smashed Avocado California Focaccia.

Even adding a daypart doesn’t necessarily require change in the kitchen. For instance, fast-casual Indian street-food concept Curry Up Now added weekend brunch to three locations.

The chain has added many items that come from other cuisines, like Mexican, and gives them an Indian flair through the application of spices or sauces. One such example is the Ghee Makhni Butter Burritos, which contain mildly spiced butter masala and a choice of chicken or paneer, an Indian cottage cheese.

Although the brunch menu was new, it was created from ingredients already used in the regular menu. “We didn’t have to change anything in the kitchen — nothing at all,” says owner Akash Kapoor.

New items that do require change in the kitchen often have to do with finishing the dish, Egnor says. “If the menu is heavy in saute items, where it was previously heavy in grilled items, the production method needs to adapt,” he explains. “Changes can range from a major disruption to almost no change. The factors influencing some physical changes are centered around processing. If there is not a total cuisine change — steakhouse to Asian, for example — there will most likely be minimal changes to the equipment.”

Beyond Ingredient Changes

“Menu drives everything, so it is no surprise that the domino effect of any change would influence all other aspects: space, design, equipment and labor,” says Karen Malody, founder and principal of Culinary Options, a foodservice consulting firm focusing on concept and menu development.

The impetus for change in the kitchen can arise from a number of causes, Malody explains. “I know various operators who, as a means of simplifying their menus and labor models, have eliminated certain stations altogether,” she says. “Or they have added new packaging technology to accommodate more takeout and delivery. Or they have added a second makeline to handle multiple points of orders coming in.”

Not all menu changes add new items or new flavors, Malody points out. Any number of outside influences or customer requirements can lead to the need to adapt the kitchen, she says. They include labor force reduction, a need to enhance speed of service, and a shift in requests (such as plant-forward, vegan, allergen-free).

Labor, specifically a lack thereof, has been an issue for operators across the U.S. Workers have not flocked back to work in foodservice roles. This puts pressure on operators to make adjustments, particularly in the back of the house. For this reason, labor-saving equipment and the redesign of workspaces continue to become more and more common.

As if labor weren’t enough of a problem, consumer patience has diminished when it comes to waiting for food, Malody explains. And the speed of food prep is “fiercely demanding” today, she says. Certain types of equipment can help offset these challenges. Malody uses grilled menu items as an example. “If a double-platen grill can cook a burger or chicken breast in a fraction of the time that it would take on a flat or chargrill, that investment is worth it,” she says. Also, she notes: “Operators are more seriously considering vacuum sealers for storage to extend shelf life because of increased demand for shorter wait times as well as the labor crisis. Menu items can be made ahead and reheated once they are ordered.”

Menu changes can impact the back of the house in noncommercial applications too. Take, for example, a healthcare foodservice environment.

Georgie Shockey is owner and president of Ruck-Shockey Associates, a foodservice consulting firm. In discussing the company’s healthcare clients, she says, “Changes we have been working with involve moving from a standard cycle menu for patients to a room service menu with daily specials.”

Shockey mentions The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center as an example of a healthcare operator that takes a similar approach to menu development and service. Wexner Medical Center has several cafes called BistrOH! To Go. Shockey was involved in the planning and building of the newest installment of BistrOH! To Go with the goal of streamlining the process of delivering fresh to-go items.

Julie Meddles, director of System Nutrition Services at Wexner Medical Center, and her team worked with Shockey on the new version of the system’s BistrOH! To Go cafe located in an outpatient care facility. The challenge was to create a menu that culinary staff could produce both to order for dine-in and to order ahead for pickup. Consideration for menu items included the amount of time employees have to eat, how long the food could sit and remain fresh, and what containers would best maintain quality and safety.

One solution was to move the cooking equipment closer to the point of service. Given the location of this space, the operation could no longer have hoods, thus eliminating grills and fryers from the equipment package. That led to the project team specifying high-speed ovens, which have worked out well. In addition to on-site preparation, the cafe sells premade items from a central production kitchen.

Format Changes

When dine-in restaurants were closed during the pandemic, many survived by adding or increasing their takeout and delivery service. Now that most areas permit on-premises dining once again, most restaurants still continue to offer takeout and delivery for consumers who have come to expect the convenience or are not ready to return to enclosed spaces. Maintaining takeout and delivery also keeps operations prepared for potential lockdowns in the future.

Second makelines have become essential to smooth production.“This will tend to require certain equipment duplicates,” Malody says. “But if the sales volume justifies the purchase and allows the business to grow substantially, it is worth it.”

Sometimes it’s not just a change in menu or a change in service style that will lead to back-of-the-house updates. Sometimes it’s both.

Such is the case with Franciscan Health in Michigan City, Ind. Two years ago, Franciscan Health switched to a room service approach for patient feeding. The transition was simplified due to the hospital moving to a whole new facility. As a result, the project team was able to design the kitchen from scratch. The new space featured some specific differences from its predecessor.

The transition to room service meant Franciscan Health was able to get rid of all the old steam tables as well as large freezers the operation used for the standard cycle menu, says Kathy Kesling, manager of Food & Nutrition at Franciscan Health. Since patients now order food at any time of the day, Franciscan Health no longer requires holding equipment. Staff prepare menu items when ordered through the call center. The process does require more staff, however, which, in today’s environment, presents a significant challenge. “Staffing has been tight throughout the last 18 to 24 months,” Shockey adds.

Labor woes lead many operators to look toward various forms of automation, such as robotics to deliver food short distances, preordering technology so that staff can produce items somewhat ahead of the lunch rush, and cashless transactions.

The good news is that transitioning to a new approach appears to be worth the effort. Patients are happier with room service, according to Kesling. “They are able to get what they want when they want it,” she says. As long as the items fit doctors’ orders, that is.

Whether operators adopt new ingredients to freshen up old favorites or create entirely new menus to fit changes in consumer demand, the kitchen is liable to change. External impacts, such as the labor crisis, also have an effect on the back of the house. In the case of kitchen adaptation, form always follows function, whether it is a new makeline to support takeout or the addition of a panini press to upgrade sandwiches. The degree of change in the menu dictates the magnitude of adaptation in the kitchen. As Malody says, menu drives everything. 

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Karen Malody

Owner: Culinary Options Karen founded Culinary Options consultancy in 1997