Top Menu Tips of 2012

1. Give chefs autonomy

Having a concept for your chain doesn’t mean that the cuisine has to be set in stone. “We just say no to cookie cutter,” says Ty Neal, CEO of Matchbox Food Group. “We want to always make our restaurants better by giving our chefs creative leeway.” This approach helps keep the restaurant concept fresh for both the kitchen staff and the diners.

2. Take a walk on the wild side and hire a forager

Take your sourcing to the next level by introducing rare and exotic foraged ingredients into your recipes. Restaurants not only give diners an experience that they can’t get at a competitor’s establishment, they also give them a great story about the origins of their food. “It’s not simply the right choice and a good choice, it’s also a delicious choice,” says Mikuni Wild Harvest co-founder Tyler Gray.

3. Produce your own ingredients

The latest buzz on the restaurant scene is beekeeping. “Our goal is provide value, values, and yummy food,” says Founding Farmers’ director of honey Valerie Zweig. “Urban beekeeping is one more way we can walk our talk and extend our brand.” An element produced on site intimately connects guests to their dining experience and provides a one-of-a-kind flavor profile.

4. Look to the Far East for inspiration

“Keep an eye out for a lot of regional Thai and Indian street food,” says Andrew Freeman, president of hospitality consulting firm Andrew Freeman and Co. He also sees a rise in the importation of ancient techniques from Asia. That includes everything from making bao buns to pulling noodles. Incorporating old-world concepts into a new-world context allows chefs to bring back heritage cuisines, entertain guests with showy food preparations and add a deeper backstory to their menus.

5. Give your diners health information and healthy choices

Mandatory menu labeling is coming up in 2012 for restaurants with 20 or more locations. Though many establishments will be exempted from this law, it could ultimately teach consumers to expect that information at establishments of any size. Kitchens that get a jump-start on offering healthier options and/or voluntarily making health information available will be ready to meet the expected demand.

6. Think twice before you jump on the food truck bandwagon

“The most successful mobile food trucks assemble food to order,” says Aaron Noveshen, founder and CEO of the food strategy consultants the Culinary Edge.  “They’re in the fast food business.” Brick and mortars looking to branch out should keep the prep in their home kitchens, while just focusing on service in their trucks. That ensures high-quality food, while reaching a new set of consumers and expanding the brand.

7. Shrink your dishes and expand your menu

For the culinary team, the tapas-styled format allows for expanded creativity. For diners, it introduces a social element to the dining experience and allows everyone at the table to both enjoy familiar tastes and experiment with some new ones. Lastly, meals can be paced to unfold more slowly than in other casual restaurant concepts, so servers have more time to upsell the restaurant’s extensive drink menu.

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