A dash of creative transformative ingenuity mixed with knowing the customer base is a recipe for profitable success.

It’s true—many chefs dedicate a tremendous amount of time and effort to create specialty items, endless diversity, and innumerable choices through large and daunting menus. I know because I am a chef who was guilty of this thought process earlier in my career. I have since gained experience and maturity leading me to Redz, where our American-inspired fare has been serving residents and guests of South Jersey for over three years. As Executive Sous Chef, my job is to oversee the entire kitchen, making sure menu items are prepared properly and that the kitchen staff is performing to their highest ability. Because we are located in the ‘garden state’ of New Jersey, we focus on using locally sourced items and work intimately with surrounding area community farmers and vendors.

While I understand both innovation, creativity and keeping food costs in line are all critical skills for the job, I have found that the true key to success in a restaurant kitchen is respecting the traditional signature menu items and understanding how to further what the restaurant does best, thereby satisfying the core customer base. Yes, there are moments to flex those epicurean muscles and that is what specials are reserved for. Sometimes they sell; sometimes they don’t. Specials fulfill my need as an artist to create, but don’t necessarily help the bottom line consistently. I know I can indulge my inner creative through those specials, but look to what is already popular on our menu as inspiration to appeal to a wider audience and sell more plates. The result? Back of the house isn’t overwhelmed with new recipes, food costs remain stable and profits increase with supplemental options to items we already serve. Following are three things I did that worked.

Look at what’s already in the walk-in

A lemon can shine beyond vinaigrette or garnish. I roast them with the broccoli I get from the nearby farm for our seasonal vegetable side. I pickle them and may add that as part of a crust for our fish of the day. Those lemons may even make it into a cream cheese base for a lemon cheesecake (cheesecake is something we always have on our dessert menu). By looking at our existing menu and analyzing our P&L statements, I was able to see that fish tacos and burgers sell like gangbusters. So, instead of serving the tacos with a cilantro lime ranch sauce, I served it with creamy chipotle sauce. The result? An increase in fish taco sales for that week. 

One of our biggest sellers also happens to be one of my favorite things to prepare—steak. The ideas for prep are endless and don’t have to be expensive. After conversations with management, we agreed to test the limits on how much our customers enjoyed all things beef. We serve four cuts on our menu: the ribeye; filet mignon, New York strip and a tomahawk steak. One night a week we serve all four cuts family-style with a choice of vegetable and starch for $150 a person. Additionally, we started to include prime rib king and queen-sized weekend dinners for $24–$36. It didn’t cost the restaurant one cent to execute these ideas. I didn’t have to source a vendor to supply me with anything new. My staff wasn’t stretched to the max because they all already know how to prepare what we already serve. Our customers have never been more pleased, and we continue to receive praise for the idea.

Use your imagination. 2+2=4, but so does 3+1

Customers are very often enticed by the bright, shiny menu item specifically produced on certain day of the week. Redz is attached to a hotel, which has its pros and cons. My management team and I capitalize on the pro of having that captive hotel audience by developing a series of offers for each night of the week. It’s printed on a 5×7 card that is dropped in every room or given at check-in.

As an added bonus, this program provides a way to use existing inventory overages.  By offering half-price on bottles ‘Wine Down Wednesday’ and all day “Thirsty Thursday” discounts on beer bottles and cans we can encourage customers to gravitate to what we want or need to sell. We also offer a pasta Friday that families truly enjoy – and we all know what the profit margin on a box of pasta is. Again, none of this increase labor costs and there is zero risk to these ideas because there isn’t a single thing we already don’t have in-house.

Supplementals and add-ons are a chef’s best friend

As all chefs know, a simple twist can transform a dish. We have an $8 Caesar salad on the menu. The customer perception is, they can create their own customized Caesar with the simple upcharge of a piece of salmon or some blackened chicken increasing the profit margin for that humble salad by 100 percent.

It’s no secret that while most commonly used with salad or pasta dishes, add-ons assuredly   increase sales, but they also create the illusion of diversity when the menu remains simple and consistent. I also took a page from the steakhouse business plan playbook. As noted, steak sells at Redz. Creating a supplemental menu of sauces like a $2 mushroom demi glaze or a $3 au poivre crust or even a $1 blue cheese add-on are all potential spots to elevate the dish and the bottom line.

This industry, like any, is in a constant state of flux. As chefs, we need to be flexible when it comes to creating and executing dishes. In hospitality we all strive to strike that magic balance of consistency, diversity and creativity while keeping in mind the satisfaction and experience of our customer base. I feel we do this very well at Redz, but don’t just take my word for it — you should come and see for yourself.

Expert Takes, Feature