Business of Life
October 26, 2012By Liz Biro
Key decision-makers sit around a long dinner table. Some people are wringing their hands, others are wide-eyed and full of ideas. Comments are quick but serious. Talk has everything to do with food. Anticipation for what the kitchen will deliver is high.
No one is hungry for a meal.
This is an LM Restaurants menu development session, one of the last in a series of tastings before the company on Oct. 29 unveils its newest concept, Hops Supply Co., a gastropub on Oleander Drive.
The team is eager to get the food right by go-time. Yet, the onion soup’s seasoning and the skirt steak’s sear are only a few concerns this group, or any restaurateurs, must consider when making menus for opening night and beyond.
To the armchair restaurateur watching Food Network’s Restaurant Impossible, menu creation comes across as simple: Give people what they want. But as Hops executive chef Tiffany Eslien says, “People’s idea of what’s good and what’s not is constantly changing.”
Stir in the potential impact of a menu’s language, how cooks feel about particular recipes, the way plates portray offerings, plus many other uncertainties, and producing a menu proves one of the restaurant industry’s most challenging tasks.
As chef Jacquvalon Brown advises his culinary students at The Chef’s Academy in Morrisville, where menu design and development courses are mandatory parts of each curriculum program, “Figuring out what people will like is a guessing game.”
While development puts chefs firmly on the hot seat, the process is mostly a team effort that starts with a restaurant concept rather than a famous recipe.
The LM tasting session is at the tail end of planning that began early last spring when LM owner Lou Moshakos suggested a gastropub to vice president of operations Mike Liedberg.
Liedberg presented various angles within the confines of LM’s guidelines: value, affordability, quality ingredients, friendly service and comfortable settings. The team narrowed the range of gastropub ideas down to two and finally one before food was central to discussions.
“It’s less menu at the beginning and more research,” Liedberg says.
Once LM decided it wanted an American gastropub focused on chef-inspired food, craft beer and handcrafted cocktails, Liedberg began talks with LM corporate chef David Spirito.
Liedberg laid out menu boxes, labeling each section – big, juicy burgers; affordable steak, sharable seafood – and then asked Spirito for recipe ideas.
Spirito had to think about more than flavor. The kitchen staff’s qualifications, how long cooks need to produce a selection, what the competition sells, how much food should be on a plate and how the plate is shaped are as significant. The best menu item can fail in diners’ minds if food is slow to arrive or too closely resembles what other restaurants provide.
“Once a (restaurant) direction is identified, I get to work, taking into consideration what’s hot at the moment and what’s trending, or even relooking at existing or familiar items and adding new inspiration.” Spirito says.
Critiques begin at what Liedberg calls “a working tasting,” where only a few LM managers zoom in on the “bones of a recipe.”
From there, Spirito and Eslien embellish the basics. Tastings grow to include LM marketing staff, chefs and employees from other restaurants and sometimes outside guests.
At this LM tasting, burgers, steak and seafood are all on the table. The house burger is a big, juicy hit, as Liedberg requested, thanks to finally finding the best bun, soft and buttery. The skirt steak’s sauce needs a minor tweak but presentation wins raves. The portion is doggy-bag-big but attractive enough not to look like a value plate.
LM managers already OK’d the mussels recipe, but Spirito and Liedberg want the group to taste a beer-based broth. The pair is already thinking ahead to seasonal preparations, diners changing preferences and how the use of beer in menu items may continue to enhance public perception of Hops.
“I always try to push boundaries and let leadership rein me back in,” Spirito says.
Seasonally changing menus and chef-driven alterations are built into the Hops concept, but menu tweaks are constant for restaurateurs.
Sometimes, changes are forced by circumstances out of restaurateurs’ control, most recently America’s economic recession. Locally, it’s driven restaurants to focus on value.
Uptown’s Port Land Grille added a Simple Grille menu that allows diners a choice of various meats and two fancy sides such as truffle grits for $21. Just this month, downtown’s upmarket Deluxe added a comfort food menu, $12-$18, that, as owner Scott Haulman often puts it, is “Deluxafied.” Fried chicken comes with rosemary truffle gravy. A pasta dish features vegetable and duck confit.
Focusing on guiding principles and remaining flexible are keys to successful menu development, a point Cameo 19 Hundred owner Brian Parke understands well. In the course of its three-year history, the Lumina station location has undergone several menu changes as Parke searched for the right blend of food and cooks to serve an affluent, mixed-age market.
The space under Parke started as the fine-dining restaurant Odessa, became the nightclub Cameo and then found its niche as the Cameo 19 Hundred tapas lounge, which hits both of the previous marks.
Parke worked with a menu consultant on small plates that were both familiar and daring, thereby appealing to both ends of his market. Small servings added a fun factor Parke sought for the late-night crowd but allowed early diners to take risks without making big investments.
Parke’s idea was to hire a kitchen manager who could execute streamlined offerings with ease. “A chef can be so expensive,” he said. When Parke discovered chef Kirsten Mitchell, he had the option of adding luxury and creativity to the menu, which he thought his market would appreciate.
Together, Parke and Mitchell made Cameo 19 Hundred’s menu distinct, not only keeping standards like sliders and tartare and incorporating trends but also adding exciting listings such as exotic meats (rattlesnake, kangaroo) that diners may not order but which demonstrate the kitchen’s range and the restaurant’s verve.
“I think it’s a good talking piece,” Parke says of exotic meats. “When people go out to eat, they can get spaghetti and meatballs all the time. You have to show them something different.”
Mitchell changes the menu every three months, and not just to stay seasonal. “Keeping up with trends is a daily job,” she says.
She dreams of one day serving geoduck or sea urchin, but what a chef desires and what diners want often differs.
LM’s Eslien loved the lemon lavender crème brulee she once created; diners didn’t. Spirito recalls his blackberry coriander spatzle.
“This was a pasta dish with black pepper gastric served with a grilled elk chop at a fine dining restaurant,” he says. “It never left the kitchen.”
Such experiences remind chefs and owners, whether at large companies like LM or small, independent restaurants, that the biggest menu question requiring the exact right answer is always “Will the food sell?”
“Any person can be creative with someone else’s money at risk,” Brown says, “but the bottom line is to make a menu that will be profitable.”