Menu Innovations | April 2013 | By Barney Wolf

Small Portions a Big Idea

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A different take on the soup-salad-sandwich option is Qdoba Mexican Grill’s Craft 2 menu, which pairs two small-portioned entrées.

“When we developed Craft 2 [three years ago], it was about variety and being health conscious,” says Ted Stoner, chef and director of strategic product development at the fast-casual restaurant company. “But it became apparent that we were also opening up customers to more adventuresome eating. You can get one of your favorites and try something new.”

Craft 2 offers two half or small servings of tacos, burritos, Mexican-style gumbo, nachos, grilled quesadillas, tortilla soup, and nacho salad, for about $6.50. A small version of the Mango Salad is offered when the larger, limited-time offer is available.

Diners choose Craft 2 items for specific reasons in different regions, Stoner says. “Those selecting for nutritional concerns—you can have an indulgent item like nachos and pair that with a salad or soup that is lower in fat—are doing that more in markets like New York, where they eat out a lot,” he says. “The St. Louis market is more value driven, while markets like Seattle look for more different and new flavors.”

Pei Wei Asian Diner, P.F. Chang’s fast-casual sister brand, is another company that features little portions in a combo meal. The combos pair a small serving of one of six popular dishes with a spring roll, cup of soup, or Asian slaw. The entrée items range from Lo Mein and Teriyaki to Kung Pao and General Tso. The base price is $6.45.

“Doing a smaller portion does allow guests to try something different,” says Phil Butler, creative culinary chef for Pei Wei. “The one thing that amazes me is how much they love us and trust us to bring them great flavors.”

Pei Wei also has a Small Plates menu. It originally had items like Bangkok Noodles and Lemongrass Chicken Noodle Salad, but has evolved into appetizer-type items, including spring rolls and edamame, starting at $2.

The chain’s customers typically see the small plates as an add-on to their dish, “but we do hear customers use us to get a couple small plates and share them at a table, or they have a couple small plates for a meal,” Butler says. The chef indicated that the company this year might add more small-portion items to the menu at different price points.

Even Starbucks has dipped its toes into the small-plates sea, offering nine food items, along with beer and wine, on its Evenings menu, which is available at 18 locations in seven markets. The food items range from the Warm Rosemary Brown Sugar Cashews, for $3.45, to the Blue Brie Cheese Plate, for $6.95. Other offerings include Parmesan Crusted Chicken Skewers and Truffle Macaroni and Cheese.

“They are meant to be shared, but are not too much for one person,” writes Alisa Martinez, a spokeswoman for Seattle-based Starbucks, in an e-mail. The items were created “to appeal to different taste preferences and to pair with our wine selection.” Starbucks will explore offering new selections seasonally, she adds.

Some operators have small portions as their major menu items. Wow Bao, under the Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises umbrella, offers baos—small steamed pastries—as its primary entrée. There are six savory varieties, including Teriyaki Chicken and Spicy Mongolian Beef, at $1.69 each, or six for $9.19. There are also a couple of sweet baos.

The items are perfect for today’s consumer, says Geoff Alexander, vice president and managing partner of Wow Bao, which has four full-time Chicago locations, a food truck, and a stall at Cellular Field, home of the Chicago White Sox.

“Everybody is on the go, and everybody is late, and everybody is on the phone, so having something to eat in one hand while moving is very important,” he says, adding that the steamed baos are a healthy option with an average 170 calories each.

Whether diners are choosing Wow Bao for a meal or snack depends on the time of day and particular location, Alexander says. On the big shopping day after Thanksgiving, for instance, hundreds of people in various-sized groups every hour visited the Wow Bao at the Water Tower Place upscale shopping center along Michigan Avenue.

“It shows that people choose us for snacks and meals, and to get together with others,” he says.

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