Starters, small plates and sides: a key menu trend

September 17 2013

Canadian restaurateurs could make their menus more diverse and appealing by expanding the number of starters, small plates and sides they offer.

Providing smaller dishes as an appetizer or accompaniment has always been a popular tactic used by food service operators, but there is evidence that such offerings are currently growing in popularity, providing a potential opportunity to eateries that are aware of the trend.

Consultancy firm Technomic has published the findings of a recent consumer survey from the US, revealing that 38 per cent of the more than 1,600 adult diners polled said they order appetizers on all or most of their restaurant visits - up from 27 per cent in 2009.

The leading side items sold by the top 500 chains in the US as identified by the survey were breads, non-breaded vegetables, fries, deli salads and other potato dishes.

It was also revealed that 33 per cent of customers order small plates as a starter, with 14 per cent purchasing them as a snack and 19 per cent choosing them as an accompaniment, while a further 33 per cent buy a variety of smaller dishes to eat as a main meal.

According to accompanying analysis from the report, these facts can be attributed to the rising popularity of mix-and-match dining, with customers increasingly valuing the ability to customize their eating experience with a wider selection of smaller items.

Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, said: "Appetizers, small plates and accompaniments are becoming more of a draw. In fact, our data shows that consumer purchases of appetizers are steadily getting closer to pre-recession levels.

"That's good news for operators looking to promote add-on sales of starters and other extras. Highlighting the shareable, fun factor of these foods - as well as their versatility - helps them function as menu differentiators."

As such, chefs could find that sides and small plates offer them a great opportunity to experiment with new recipes, or offer specialized items that cater to specific tastes and trends.

Technomic's research shows that around two-fifths of consumers report that unique or ethnic flavours play a strong role in determining their appetizers and small-plate purchasing decisions.

For example, restaurants could look to the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association's list of top menu trend for 2013 for inspiration. The industry body noted that ethnic or street food-inspired appetizers such as tempura and taquitos are proving big hits at the moment, as are items containing Greek yogurt or non-wheat noodles or pasta, including quinoa, rice and buckwheat.

Additionally, small plates can also be an excellent way of appealing to customers who are concerned about healthy eating and to create a sense of social occasion to the meal, with many eateries also finding success by offering their patrons recommendations of sides that can be paired with specific meals.

As such, experimentation with this type of menu offering could yield considerable positive results for restaurant owners, allowing to remain ahead of the curve in terms of consumer trends, while also bringing all sorts of new flavours to their line-up.