In the Kitchen
A look at customer demand with a side order of creative ideas to bolster your menu
By Colleen Cross
Call them salads, soups, sides, starters, appetizers, finger foods, antipasto or charcuterie – there is little doubt they add value to your menu and a little something to your bottom line.
These days customers seem to be expanding their tastes beyond standard favourites like garlic bread and wings. Customers of all ages are demanding healthy choices as a way to balance their restaurant indulgences.
Soup and salad consumption has held steady over the past couple of years, as consumers look to these for traditional better-for-you meals and add-ons, suggests Technomic’s Consumer Trend Report, Canadian Left Side of the Menu: Soup and Salad, but these favourites may have competition from other types of side dishes.
People crave a diet containing simpler, cleaner, quality ingredients because they believe is better for them, suggests Kelly Weikel, director of consumer insights for Technomic. “It’s not necessarily that it has fewer calories but that eating it makes them feel better physically and emotionally. Soups and salads are already perceived as healthy, and as balancing indulgence,” she says. “People feel better especially if it’s a family occasion, as pizza occasions often are, if they can say, ‘We’re going to have pizza but you’re also going to get your vegetables from a salad.’ ”
“Quick-service restaurants often rely on salads as a healthy alternative and are particularly winning more salad visits now than in 2013; they offer innovative yet affordable and convenient salad in the face of high retail produce prices,” the report says.
Technomic suggests limited-time offers on salads with fresh, seasonal ingredients and distinctive – even housemade – dressings can help set restaurants apart and draw in diners. “Craveable ingredients like bacon and blue cheese, for example, can be balanced with the health-forward freshness of less-common fruits.”
The idea of “local” is important,” Weikel says. People attach the idea of fresh and healthy to the notion of local and supporting your community. “Consumers look at health as very holistic – as overall health.”
Healthier sides are in demand but don’t always win out. The company’s Canadian Pizza Consumer Trend Report identifies the top items customers order at a pizza restaurant when they don’t want pizza. Salad is the top choice and equally popular among those under and over 35 years old. Rounding out the top five are pasta, burgers, fries and chicken and buffalo wings. Poutine comes in just below these perennial favourites, with a noticeable split between customers under and over 35. More younger customers wanted poutine than wanted any other item except salad and fries.
More and more restaurants are turning to house-made sauces, dressings and dips to put their stamp on side dishes. Fresh, housemade and additive-free claims will continue to grow, the report says. “Consumers demand clean ingredients and hard-to-replicate dishes, preferring housemade over brand-name salad dressing and soup at restaurants.”
House-made sauces and dressings are a good way to stand out on a couple of different levels because the term suggests innovation to younger customers and quality to older customers, Weikel says. “Such signature dishes appeal to both groups.”
Jason Costantini, who opened Za Pizzeria with wife and partner Lisa Costantini in spring 2015, says that as primarily a takeout pizzeria, they have kept their salad menu simple two salads: an arugula and a Caesar. “When we do add more to the menu, I would look at adding things that are lighter and more acidic to complement our pizzas,” he says.
Garlic fingers are standard fare in eastern Canada and garlic bread a staple on pizzeria menus. Costantini this spring put a new twist on the classic side. Costantini came up with his Garlic Roll as a way to offer something more – and something unquestionably different – from dough already on hand.
It is made fresh every day by cutting half a pizza into strips then rolling them in toward the pizza’s centre to be pulled apart later and possibly shared.
They thought it would be a good way to encourage people to try Za’s pizza and upgrade to a full pie. “It promotes sharing, which is what pizza is all about,” Costantini says.
He approaches menu development by keeping an eye out for trends, bringing ideas to life in the kitchen then testing it out on family, friends and customers.
He says it’s important that the name be simple enough to “tell the story” of a dish. “In the case of our ‘Funghi’ pizza, we wanted to be sure people knew it would have lots of mushrooms. So it either makes them want to try the pizza or lets them know to avoid it if they don’t care for that ingredient.”
“I like to be playful, but it’s easy to mislead and to be corny,” he says.
It’s also easy to get carried away adding sides and increase your level of food waste. “The more you do, the more waste you have,” he says. “Adding a new side will probably always increase your sales but at what cost?”
Six inspired sides
Golden Beet Salad
Novo Pizzeria & Wine Bar, Kitsilano, B.C. has a salad that hits a few healthy notes featuring golden beets made with toasted hazelnuts, crumbled lavender goat cheese, artisan lettuce, white balsamic and honey vinaigrette.
Truffle Onion Rings
Calgary‘s Brooklyn Pizzeria and Taps adds value to an old favourite. The shop’s beer-battered onion rings are tossed with garlic butter and truffle oil, and dusted with Parmesan cheese.
Vegan-friendly Toronto chain Magic Oven’s gluten-free Power Soup of chickpeas in a vegetable broth is a staple on its innovative menu.
Bite-size pizza rolls with pomodoro sauce, guacamole, salsa verde or sour cream may be found at Restaurant La Piazzetta Vieux-Port in Quebec City. Options include vegetarian and Alpine, which features Swiss cheese, grilled prosciutto, red onions, chives, apples, white wine and Alfredo sauce.
Luna Pizza of Fredericton has a playful seafood starter. The pizzeria’s Shrimpcargot consists of tender shrimp sautéed in garlic butter, topped with a layer of melted mozzarella cheese and served with garlic bread.
Old Town Pizza, which has locations in St. John’s and Mount Pearl, N.L., turns its pizza dough into a concoction called Yummy Bread. The dough is twisted and topped with garlic butter and corn meal, and stuffed with mozzarella and, if desired, bacon.