10% less on a plate is 10% less money on a plate.
"We're in this to make money, but perceived value is so important," says Steve Schimoler, chef/owner of CROP Bistro and Bar and Cropicana, both in Cleveland, Ohio. "Value isn't just about food, it's about aesthetics." He suggests replacing a 12-ounce rib-eye with a 6-ounce hangar steak. "Slice it, plate it beautifully. Not only are you saving money, but it's more user friendly and it looks nice. It's a better eating experience," he says. He suggests elevating it slightly by placing the sliced meat over mashed potatoes. "It's still steak, but now it's sexier, and you're reducing the amount of fat, calories and salt on the plate," he says.
Focus on side dishes.
Chef Schimoler calls out side dishes as a place where diners can experiment with more adventurous flavors and where chefs can play a little. He also points out that a well-executed side dish can deflect attention from the center of the plate, where portions may be smaller or feature a lesser cut of meat.
Use speed scratch to make signature dishes.
"Buy base products and make signatures—shelf space is limited," says Ray Martin, vice president for culinary development at BJ's Restaurants, Inc. By taking one base product, he says, you can give your customers the variety of choices that they want. "Buy a base barbecue sauce, then you can take it three ways: honey, chipotle and Dijon, for instance," he says.
Take another look at ethnic.
"Cost effective used to be using alternative proteins, but now there's nowhere to turn," says Chef Martin, who oversees culinary at BJ's 105 units. "Look at ethnic. Know what makes the recipes stand out—marinades, seasonings for lesser cuts of meat." He cross-utilizes pot roast, featuring it on the Culinary Creations menu in Old-Fashioned Pot Roast, in BJ's sandwich category with an Angus Pot Roast Sandwich and in a breakfast LTO of Machaca (shredded pot roast and eggs).
Add small snacks and bites to the menu mix.
"We were worried about check average going down," says Chef Martin. "But it went the other way. [With small plates,] diners can try more, and then they still order the entrée." He suggests looking at fusion for inspiration. "You can combine and build flavors," he says. He also suggests building the menu with choices of sauces for different heat and spice levels.
Make more with the things you have.
"Don't cheapen your core products and stay true to your brand promise," says Stan Frankenthaler, vice president of product innovation and executive chef for Dunkin' Brands. "We didn't add a value meal, instead, we looked at what we had." From that perspective, Chef Frankenthaler saw inspiration with the dough used at Dunkin' Donuts for its bagels. The result? Bagel Twists, freshly baked bagels twisted and flavored with savory or sweet ingredients. "We created an eating occasion—the afternoon," he says. "They're at a great food cost for us, and they deliver an authentic flavor experience for our customer." "And they don't cannibalize sales of morning bagels", he adds.
Extend stocks, sauces and reductions with thickening agents.
"You can dramatically change the cost of a dish by understanding how starches work and how gums work," says CROP's Chef Schimoler. As an example, he explains how to reduce the cost of balsamic reduction by 80%: bring balsamic vinegar to a boil, add water and sugar, then reduce. Add cornstarch to thicken. "You're not impacting the flavor, and you're reducing costs for the right reasons," he says.