As restaurant competition becomes more cutthroat, chefs are leaning on in-house specialties to differentiate their concepts and win loyal guests.
“My philosophy is that you come to a restaurant in order to see what that chef is capable of doing.” Brian Bruns, chef and co-owner of Flat & Point, a new restaurant in Chicago, takes that statement seriously. It’s hard to find a dish on the menu in which the majority—if not all—of the components weren’t made in-house. And Bruns is far from alone in this approach.
As the competition stiffens amid market saturation, it’s no longer enough for operators to serve good food. To truly stand out, restaurants must shine. In-house specialties, from house-made ramen broth to freshly churned ice cream, are one way to do that.
At Flat & Point, the whole menu is intertwined, with many in-house items depending on each other in some way. “We want all items we bring into the restaurant, be it meat or vegetable, to serve many purposes,” Bruns says. To that end, the chef and his team make the bread, ricotta cheese, pasta, charcuterie items, and all the sauces on premises.
In addition to showcasing creativity, Bruns says, cooking this way has both environmental and economic benefits. “We use every bit of something before it goes into the compost,” Bruns says. “Sometimes products don’t even make it to the compost because after being used multiple times, they end up on a dish.”
Seasonality and local foods often play into house specialties, as the ingredients not only taste better but are also less costly to transport and produce fewer emissions. At the Ritz-Carlton Resort in Lake Oconee, Georgia, chef Edgar Carrera changes items like apple butter or spiced nuts based on what’s available.
“We have a strong focus on sourcing and collaborating with regional farmers and food artisans to provide the most authentic experience when possible,” Carrera says.
Nick Strawhecker, chef and owner of Forno in Omaha, Nebraska, has a similar approach when it comes to his tigelle, a traditional Italian street food that’s similar to an English muffin stuffed with meats, cheeses, and spreads.
“Locality and seasonality are very important to us,” Strawhecker says. “For the tigelle we do a lot of jams, pickles, and ferments, which have the additional environmental benefit of extending the life of a food from one season to the next.” Recently the tigelle dish has featured jams made from tomatoes and eggplant. The two vegetables flourish in Nebraska during the mid- to late summer, allowing Forno to preserve and serve the jams into the fall and winter.
It’s not only food menus that are jumping on the in-house bandwagon. At Stratus Rooftop Lounge in Philadelphia, bar manager Mirek Struniaski makes as many cocktail components as possible, including peanut butter–washed bourbon, house-made tiki bitters, and a cinnamon whiskey that’s concocted with allspice, cloves, and honey from local beehives.
As part of Kimpton Hotels, Stratus Rooftop Lounge uses house-made items as a means to both elevate the guest experience and spotlight locally sourced goods. The specialties also help build loyalty by providing a memorable guest experience. “Guests love knowing that they are getting the freshest and sustainably sourced products for their hard-earned money,” Struniaski says. “They love the surprise of asking for a fireball shot and being delivered a handcrafted, and arguably better, product.”
Carrera also uses his in-house specialties to enhance the guest experience beyond the Ritz-Carlton premises. Guests may find a hand-labeled jar of spiced nuts in their rooms or a jar of fresh preserves, ready to take home, by their dinner plate in the restaurant.
“We strive to achieve an emotional engagement through the different experiences and elements that tie our unique location and resort together,” Carrera says, “something that will let our guest remember their experience here.”
Some restaurants have gone even further by bringing their best-loved specialties into the consumer market. Today, reservations at Stephanie Izard’s pair of concepts are among the most coveted in Chicago. But when she opened her first spot, Girl & the Goat, in 2010, she never would have guessed that one of the most popular dishes at the meat-heavy restaurant would be the green beans.
“Guests were constantly asking for the sauce to use at home to turn up the flavor for their own veggie dishes,” Izard says. “That’s when I decided to start bottling it.” The resulting lineup, under the name, This Little Goat, includes sauces and spice blends that are available in select-area supermarkets.
At the Alabama-based chain Full Moon BBQ, co-owner David Maluff experienced a similar demand from guests. “The popularity of the Full Moon products that were being served in our stores is what inspired us to take our bread-and-butter items like barbecue sauce and chow-chow and move them to the consumer market,” Maluff says.
Traditionally, the world of consumer-packaged goods has largely been dominated by limited-service operators like Full Moon rather than full-service independents or small hospitality groups. Venerated chefs like Izard entering the arena could signal a shift.
For her part, Izard views the commercial line as another way of connecting with her guests, even after they leave the restaurant. “We’re always trying to improve consumer experiences in their home kitchens,” she says.