Outside of government-sponsored wartime rationing, the battle against large portions has never been so intense. Menu labeling laws like those in Washington’s King County have promoted a soft approach, by not actually forcing restaurants to change how many calories they’re serving, but at least requiring them to disclose the totals to guests ahead of time.
Bans on specific portion sizes, like the New York City ban on sugary beverages larger than 16 ounces, go a step further. But the most psychologically intimidating move may be the new posters in New York City subways. The posters, launched in early 2012, show how portion size has changed over the years and contain the tagline, “Cut Your Portions. Cut Your Risk.” One poster, available in English and Spanish, ties portion size to Type 2 diabetes. The stark black-and-white backdrop? An overweight man with an amputated right leg—just one of the potential complications of an unhealthy lifestyle.
Even after years of warnings from the FDA and nutritionists, portion size has continued to grow. Morgan Spurlock’s "Super Size Me" provided a strong wake-up call for the quick serves, which started offering “snack-size” items and mini-treats after backlash from the film. But there’s never been a similar turning point for the full-service industry. The New York Times reported that even as recently as 2004, an attempt by Ruby Tuesday to slim down some portions and print nutritional information on the menu was so unpopular with consumers that the chain had to reverse course.
Now, though, smaller portions are starting to make inroads. T.G.I. Friday’s made its “Right Portion, Right Price” menu a permanent offering at its 600-plus restaurants in 2008, and California Pizza Kitchen launched a Small Cravings program two years later. Toward the upper end of the market, Ruth’s Chris Steak House began to offer a smaller, three-course Ruth’s Chris Classics meal for $39.95. These chains join a host of independents that have started offering smaller portions for a smaller price. John Gordon, the principal of the Pacific Management Consulting Group, says that it took the recession to make smaller portions a reality.
“Weaker casual-dining operators made major entree items smaller,” Gordon says. “The customers notice it over a period of time. The better practice in restaurants would be to be able to have a half size or a whole size.”
This shift in offerings coincides with a shift in the way people eat. Customers have become enamored with tapas, tasting menus, and small plates, which allow a more casual, grazing approach to mealtime. Chris Kline, the executive chef for Sara Lee Foodservice, says he’s seen this way of eating become solidified in the past 10 years. He develops recipes for full-service chains and independents and says the small-plate trend allows for greater diversity.
“That’s a great way to experience a menu in a fun, more interactive way,” Kline says. “Sometimes we want to taste three or four different things. We don’t want to settle for one large entree.”
Several reasons to offer small portions
There are several reasons to offer smaller portions. First, it’s a way to get budget-strapped customers to come to your restaurant. While the economy is slowly recovering, unemployment is still high and wages are still low. Gordon says that upscale restaurants in particular can suffer when the economy slips.
“In 2009, I honestly thought that Ruth’s Chris was a goner,” Gordon says. “I remember seeing the CEO at a conference and saying, ‘I’m worried that I might not see you next year.’”
One of the chain’s responses to declining same-store sales was the Ruth’s Chris Classics menu. By offering smaller portions (like a 6-ounce filet with shrimp instead of a larger 12- or 16-ounce steak) and a correspondingly smaller price ($39.95 instead of $50-plus), it was able to keep many existing customers and ride out the recession.
“For a couple years, Ruth’s sold as much as 30 percent of their total product mix [in Classics],” Gordon says. “Now they’re in the 10 percent zone. Customers have traded back to a larger item.”
Sometimes it’s not a question of trading back, but of trading over to food at all. Small portions can be a bridge to introduce bar customers to your dining room, a transition between bar snacks and a full meal. Yet another reason to offer smaller portions is to get diners hooked on new dishes.
When Yasuko Holt opened the Zen House in small-town Hermantown, Minnesota, her clientele wasn’t necessarily ready for big plates of raw fish. So she offered an appetizer portion, which she said was quite successful.
“People around here don’t know much about sushi.” Holt says, adding that once they were introduced, they were more likely to order full plates in the future.
Occasionally customers will even suggest dishes to downsize. Holt’s vegetable tempura was a popular dish at its regular size, but the richness was turning some diners away.
“Our tempura portion is so big, so they ask if they need smaller portion of tempura,” Holt says. “I always hear the customer’s comment very seriously.”
Finally, smaller portions are useful for the upsell. While price- or calorie-conscious customers may not want to splurge for a large dessert or a second glass of wine, miniature versions of rich foods like cheesecake are often too attractive to resist. Serving wine by the half glass is another way of enticing customers to treat themselves to something they may not have otherwise ordered.
“They’re willing to sacrifice size of something like that [to] satisfy a craving,” Kline says.
Finally, customers like it. Tom Hanson owns the Duluth Grill, a local-foods diner in Duluth, Minnesota. He says that while he’s shied away from offering half portions of existing dishes, he’s intentionally putting together plates of varying size.
“I’m just creating more small plates and larger plates on the menu,” Hanson says. “I definitely think there is an interest on the consumer’s part probably more than on the restaurateur’s part.”
But there are some very real concerns with smaller portions. First, operators can lose money. Smaller portions can translate to lower overall profit per dish, even if the percentage of margin is a little higher. Paul Dzubnar is the CEO of Green Mill Restaurants, a Midwestern pizza chain with 28 locations. He says that when pricing its lunch menu, the chain surveyed the competition to make sure it could compete.
“You’ve got to look at what the price points are in your market,” Dzubnar says. “See if it fits into [your] food cost model. If it doesn’t, then you’re not going to get more money for that same offering.”
Extra work for the back of the house
Another problem with smaller portions is the extra work they cause for the back of the house.
“For us it’s logistics in the kitchen,” Hanson says. “A cook already has many jobs to do. Trying to know a half portion and a whole portion and keep them straight on a ticket would basically double the amount of work they have to do.”
Even more seriously, doing it wrong can alienate customers and lose you sales. While several Yelp reviews praise California Pizza Kitchen’s Small Cravings menu, dozens of others single the chain out for criticism, saying it doesn’t provide much food for the money. (California Pizza Kitchen refused several requests for comment, but has previously called the program a success.) Other chains have received their share of complaints as well.
“People will be boisterous and will let you know if they feel like they’re being cheated,” Kline says.
So, how do you do it right? First, offer the right items. Dzubnar says that developing the lunch menu at Green Mill meant looking at things that would be easy to resize. They offer a three-quarter portion of their pastas, sandwich-soup combos, and pizza by the slice.
Other easy items to downsize include salads, side dishes, french fries, and anything easy to divide. Use smaller plates to make the dish look bigger. Then, make it up on volume. Smaller portions take less time to eat, and the lower price point can drive additional foot traffic.
“The lunch business is about volume,” Dzubnar says. “It’s about driving customer counts. You try and differentiate yourself by putting something out there that’s unique, then you try to price it reasonably.”
Lunch is a good time for smaller portions, because guests often have less time and smaller appetites. But happy hour can be a good opportunity to snag additional sales as well.
Then, price it right by raising your margins. Remember, labor cost is the same and you want diners to view the larger portion as the better deal. When Holt wanted to downsize her vegetable tempura, she cut her food cost to one-third but only cut the price from $9.95 to $4.95. Even at those proportions, the new dish isn’t as profitable.
“I still have to pay my chefs to make one particular smaller dish,” Holt says. “Rather than serving smaller portions, I like to sell more for bigger size.”
Perhaps most important is clear messaging. Separating smaller portions onto their own part of the menu lets customers know what to expect. Those looking for smaller quantities will be happy, and those with big appetites won’t be disappointed. While you’re at it, make sure the descriptions sell the item. By positioning your smaller items as just as luxurious as your star players, you can keep customer satisfaction up.
“It’s OK to call things smaller plates or half portions now,” Kline says. “I think portions are going to get smaller and menu descriptions are going to get bigger. I want to know where my peaches are from. I want to know what’s in the sausage I’m eating.”
Smaller portions offer a lot to the savvy restaurateur. If you choose your menu carefully, you can promote savings for the customer, better nutrition, and the chance to try new things. And even though smaller portions are becoming more popular, restaurant sales aren’t slowing down. Gordon says the check gain has exceeded 2 percent for the last several years throughout the restaurant space.
“You’re doing this for a particular reason,” Gordon says. “You want to get some forward momentum. Despite the fact that these items have come in, the average check has generally continued to rise.”
Where Did My Entree Go?
While customers have been generally responsive to smaller portions, there are some things that just shouldn’t be downsized.
Aren’t your appetizers already small? Taking a basket of six chicken wings down to three chicken wings creates extra work for the kitchen while stretching the boundaries of what’s even reasonable.
“We don’t do appetizers in smaller portions,” Dzubnar says.
From caviar to truffles, some items have always been portioned about as small as the market will bear. These items carry steep premiums as is and cutting their size will only alienate your biggest spenders. Michelin-starred restaurants like Alinea in Chicago may charge $250 for a tasting menu of tiny plates, but they’re also making sure the experience takes hours and the total volume of food is large. Unceremoniously slamming down a mini-plate for $32 is insulting, even if it’s a mini-plate of foie gras.
Smaller portions work well for side dishes, but especially in the U.S., customers are used to seeing a large portion of meat. A tiny protein can make a restaurant look cheap rather than calorie-conscious.
“Fish, unfortunately, is one of those things,” Kline says. “[And] you can only cut a chicken breast down so many ways.”
Finally, there are those items that just don’t look right in a smaller format. The Duluth Grill has a policy of splitting plates for free, but there are some exceptions to the rule. Their personal-sized dessert pies, for example, have crisp crusts and are impossible to divide without crumbling. (Instead, the menu recommends diners ask for an extra fork.) Whether it’s a beautifully arranged piece of sushi or a salad that sits just so, there are some dishes that shouldn’t be tampered with.