The deck has never been more stacked against chefs and restaurant operators. Start with the obvious—a recent National Restaurant Association survey found that 72 percent of restaurant operators listed labor as their top challenge. Then there’s the supply chain, with once dependable proteins and ingredients being inflated to a degree that makes it hard to turn a profit on certain menu items.
Chef Brian Duffy, a restaurateur, consultant to the industry, and frequent guest on Bar Rescue, says that chefs have to factor in these challenges when designing their menus. It’s part of the reason that menus have begun shrinking industry wide. According to Datassential, 60 percent of menus were trimmed from August 2020 to August 2021.
And while simplifying menus can be a great solution, a potential pitfall is menu fatigue, or diners getting tired of seeing the same things over and over when they go out to eat. Repetition goes against the very reason many are going out to eat in the first place: According to Datassential, 41 percent of consumers are looking to experiment rather than stick with familiar foods.
“Looking around the industry, everyone is starting to do the same things,” Duffy says. “You can’t find a bar-style restaurant right now that isn’t doing a smashburger. In the world of Mexican food, everyone’s doing tinga. That’s great, but people get tired of seeing it if it’s not presented in a unique way. It’s up to chefs to find ways to come up with menu items that are maybe twists on familiar items, or something new altogether.”
Here are a few cost-conscious ways that Duffy and other chefs are innovating to ensure that diners don’t suffer from menu fatigue.
Dress up your proteins
Duffy loves to use a single protein in various ways to create items that are different enough to make menus feel fresh and enticing. For example, he’ll use a pork butt in a pulled pork sandwich, and then change up the seasoning and use it in a Cuban, or on a plate of french fry nachos. Duffy also advises taking these items and adding regional twists that create excitement, like the time he designed a Wisconsin-themed pulled pork sandwich for a concept in Madison—classic roasted pork butt seasoned with rosemary, sea salt, and garlic, served with fresh chives, sauerkraut, and Wisconsin cheddar.
The point here, Duffy says, is that being resourceful and leaning on certain proteins doesn’t mean chefs have to stop innovating. On the contrary—it means chefs have to get creative to find ways to ensure the menu stands out from top to bottom.
“We get huge responses for items like that (Wisconsin-themed Pulled Pork Sandwich) which aren’t even really that hard,” Duffy says. “It’s all about incorporating ingredients you know will add a ton of flavor and generate interest but you don’t have to pay a crazy amount of money to get them.”
Spice It Up, Sauce It Up
Another way Duffy does more with less is by coming up with signature spice blends and sauces to help enhance proteins and sides. At a recent brew-house concept he designed, he created a french fry tasting plate. It featured various Lamb Weston® fry cuts, paired with different salts, spices, and sauces to go with each.
The idea of french fry tasting plates warms the heart of Miguel Mendoza, a corporate chef at Lamb Weston® who is a self-proclaimed french fry fanatic. Mendoza believes unique seasonings and sauces help take average items and turn them into something that most diners will be interested in, and he has the data to support it: According to Lamb Weston, 62 percent of consumers are looking for uniquely seasoned fries, while 54 percent are looking for fries to be topped, stuffed, or served with a dipping sauce. So while something like a french fry sampler is relatively simple to execute, it can also help make a menu stand out.
“I think unique sauces really resonate with everyone, whether it’s being used on chicken, a sandwich, a bowl, or fries,” Mendoza says. “All you need as the base for an amazing sauce is ketchup, mayo, mustard—you already have all of these ingredients. These are things that can help you innovate your menu right now and bring other reliable ingredients to life.”
Another thing Duffy and Mendoza agree on is the fact that fries in particular unlock nearly unlimited possibilities when it comes to innovation. Fries command great interest from diners, especially when chefs use them as the foundation for innovation. A survey conducted by Lamb Weston in 2021 that found 51 percent of consumers wanted more unique and interesting fry options.
“There’s a lot of creativity that’s happening with fries right now,” Duffy says. “I did a whole series for Lamb Weston on how to make French Fry Nachos without having them be soggy by the time they get home—that’s the world we live in and part of the innovation with fries right now is finding ways to package them in dishes that work well as takeout items.”
Mendoza cites french fries as the “ultimate comfort food” and also as a great building block to use when experimenting with ongoing trends. If chefs can dress fries up and follow current trends, Mendoza says, it creates a very accessible way for diners to experiment and feel like they’re trying something new and exciting.
“Potatoes are such an amazing canvas to use,” Mendoza says. “You can use Nashville hot type of flavoring, or tweak fries with a barbecue seasoning. I also see more and more people using colorful, seasonal ingredients with fries. It all comes back to fries giving that feeling of comfort, those are the things that I think can help.”
Both Chef Duffy and Chef Miguel believe frozen fries are the perfect solution for many of the challenges facing operators right now, such as labor shortages and the need to streamline menus due to the rising cost of ingredients. Frozen fries are a consistent product that saves on back-of-house resources and helps chefs do more with less in order to keep their menus fresh.
Doing more with less to create innovative dishes is something chefs are capable of doing, Duffy says, if they examine some practices, they may have relied on for years and approach it with a mind open to finding new ways of doing things.
Duffy points to a recent trend he’s noticed when he does a restaurant evaluation for a brand, offering a third-party service to help operators enhance efficiencies in and around the kitchen: brands pivoting away from hand cut fries.
“Just a few years ago, everybody felt like they had to do hand cut fries—that was going to be the future,” Duffy says. “It feels like more and more when I make my rounds at restaurants, I’m seeing french fry cutters underneath tables. And if I walk into a kitchen and see staff cutting fries, that’s one of the first things I note—I don’t want to pay a prep cook to cut fries for an hour and a half. On top of that, you save space in your walk-in cooler in such a big way, and frozen fries are of equal or better quality.”
Additionally, Lamb Weston’s frozen fries are more consistent than hand cut fries, Mendoza says.
“It goes back to training, right?” Mendoza says. “It’s really difficult to keep up that consistency when you’re hand cutting fries. To be honest, I think our fries even taste better than hand cut fries. Frozen fries are a way to innovate even if you have less help in the kitchen. Think of all the time and money you would save.”
For more on menu innovation, visit the Lamb Weston® website.