Cost-Effective Menu Strategies

Three great minds in foodservice serve up real-world, executable ideas on how to cut costs while maintaining your concept's value perception and flavor integrity.

"Most chefs operate from habit—things they were taught by their first chef or from culinary school," says Harry Crane, executive chef, Kraft Foods, Inc. and past president of the Research Chefs Association (RCA). And that was the impetus for this year's RCA educational session, "Cost Effective Menu Ideas That Keep Customers Coming Back," which ran during the 2011 National Restaurant Association's national show in Chicago. "We wanted to offer chefs and operators new ideas, and really drill down on what they should put on the plate," says Chef Crane, who moderated the discussion. What followed was a fruitful 90-minute panel discussion, where audience members took copious notes, walking away with workable solutions for their operations. We were there, too.

Harry Crane

Harry Crane

panel moderator
executive chef, Kraft Foods, Inc., and past president of the Research Chefs Association

Stan Frankenthaler

Stan Frankenthaler

vice president of product innovation and executive chef for Dunkin' Brands, which has more than 15,000 stores

Ray Martin

Ray Martin

vice president for culinary development at BJ's Restaurants, Inc., a family casual concept based in Huntington Beach, California

Steve Schimoler

Steve Schimoler

chef/owner of CROP Bistro and Bar, an upscale casual serving modern American cuisine and Cropicana, a casual spot serving up beach fare, both in Cleveland

7 Ideas for Managing Food Costs

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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).

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

Click here for information on the Research Chef’s Association.

Roasted Sweet Potato Salad

Positioning Sides (and then Re-Positioning)

Chef Schimoler serves a popular dish of cherry-chipotle ribs. He switches out the sides now and again. The ribs were doing gangbusters, served with a side of smoked-cheddar mac and cheese and green beans with bacon. He changed out the sides to maple-braised Brussels sprouts and whipped sweet potato. And sales of the ribs? "They plummeted by half," he says. "So we switched right back to mac and cheese. And that's the great thing with independents. We may not have the luxury of deep procurement or market analysis, like the big chains, but we're flexible and can turn our menu on a dime."

This Roasted Sweet Potato Salad (left) surprises with blue cheese, bacon and a better-for-you profile.

Craveable Menu Items

  • CROP's Balsamic Popcorn —hugely popular with an 18% food cost, the dish sees a quick sauté of julienned red onion, red and green pepper, arugula and sun-dried tomato with balsamic vinegar to deglaze pan, then a super-quick sauté of popped popcorn. Asiago, fresh basil and balsamic syrup finishes the popcorn. "My epitaph will read, 'Made cool popcorn,'" says Chef Schimoler.
    CROP’s Balsamic Popcorn
  • BJ's Famous Pizookie®— freshly baked and hot out of the oven, a warm cookie topped with vanilla-bean ice cream and served in its own deep dish. "It's memorable and craveable—something to go back for, so we have to execute it well every time," says Chef Martin.
    BJ’s Famous Pizookie®
  • Pancake Bites —Frankenthaler describes Dunkin' Donuts recent LTO, which saw bite-sized sausage links wrapped in maple-flavored pancakes as "affordable, portable, craveable foods." The pancake bites used to be a component of a dish, but the LTO featured them as an on-the-go item.
    Pancake Bites

Small Snacks Inspiration

Roasted Sweet Potato Salad


Our collection of quick-enhancement charts, developed by our culinary team with menu distinction and ease of execution in mind, show great ideas for how to turn base products into signature menu items.

Stan Frankenthaler is no longer at Dunkin' Brands.
Ray Martin is no longer at B.J.'s Restaurants.