Small plates, big opportunity

The left side of the menu may finally be ready for its closeup. So-called because of the traditional placement of appetizers, small plates and sides opposite entrees and desserts on the right, these littler offerings understandably have long played supporting roles to most restaurants’ main attractions.

However, Technomic’s new Starters, Small Plates & Sides Consumer Trend Report reveals that consumer interest is growing and operators are responding in a number of ways:

Positioning as an entrée or meal replacement. In today’s climate of customization, a meal is what the diner says it is. Small plates and appetizers can appeal to those driven by a smaller appetite or a limited budget, or at off-peak times to create a dining opportunity that otherwise would be missed. When ordered in multiples, they can answer a desire for more variety or to share with companions.

This redefinition of a typical restaurant meal might explain the rise  on menus especially for small plates, which have increased 80% on FSR menus since 2013 (although only 18% of operators offer them). In some cases, dishes formerly known as appetizers, such as sliders, are being repositioned as small plates.

With bolder flavors.  A majority of diners are looking for more appetizers with new or unique flavours, spicy ingredients and ethnic flair. In response, Asian flavors in small plates grew 650% in the past two years, and Mexican flavors grew 320% on leading full-service restaurant menus.

Through premiumization. More than simply coming before or with an entrée, these “left-side” menu items are increasingly showcasing high quality ingredients and preparation methods, such as tableside mixing of guacamole. No less than 67% of consumers say high quality/premium ingredients are important when choosing an appetizer, and one in three Millennials agree that appetizers prepared tableside are higher in quality.

How can operators further increase consumer interest in the left side of the menu? A good place to start would be to emphasize how their appetizer, small plate and sides menus deliver on key consumer touchpoints:

Value. Yes, those stingy Millennials continue to cite deals and discounts—even freebies—as top ways to entice them to order more appetizers, small plates and sides. That does not necessarily mean profit-busting price points, however. The average price for a small plate among Top 500 FSRs is $8.50, up 14% since 2013. Consumers under age 35 also reported much higher price thresholds than older diners, in some cases a difference of $2 or more depending on the segment.

Shareability.  Appetizers are already more commonly shared than eaten alone, even more so than small plates. And sharing is more popular among women and families, presenting a potential target audience. Sides may be an untapped avenue for promoting shareability, since 43% of consumers are interested in larger-sized sides suitable for sharing, but most are still portioned for single diners. Bumping up portion sizes slightly may justify a higher price point, and just as importantly, address consumers’ reluctance to order an item because they don’t have the appetite for an entire side in addition to an entree.

Regardless of how an operator approaches their “left side” of the menu, it’s important to recognize that these items are increasingly taking center stage.

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Jackie Dulen Rodriguez

Jackie Dulen Rodriguez is a senior manager at Technomic. Her work in the foodservice industry has included consulting as well as writing, editing and presentations. With a degree in information science, she also provides data analysis and trend-spotting support to Technomic researchers.

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