Smith  Wollensky crabstuffed jumbo shrimp

Innovative, shareable appetizers drive sales

Full-service restaurants like Smith & Wollensky are appealing to guests with inventive appetizers.

For full-service restaurant operators looking to improve their food sales, appetizers might be the way to go, according to recent sales data.

Picking the right appetizers is crucial, however, restaurateurs said. They should be items that are distinctive enough to get customers’ attention but not so strange that guests don’t know whether they’ll like them or not. At the same time, shareable items are gaining in popularity, they said.

According to GuestMetrics, which analyzes point-of-sale data from independent full-service restaurants, sales of appetizers grew by 3.3 percent in the first half of 2013 compared to a year earlier. That’s excluding the sale of salads, which shrank by 1 percent, and soups, which are down 0.3 percent.

Smith & Wollensky crab-stuffed jumbo shrimp

“You have to make appetizers sound really appealing, and they have to look great when they go out,” said Matt King, national director of culinary development for the nine-unit Boston-based Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group, which just added a line of appetizers, including crab-stuffed shrimp, heirloom tomato carpaccio with Burrata cheese and steak tartare.

“Stuffed shrimp is a classic dish. It really fits the steakhouse environment,” he said. For dramatic presentation he uses large U6-8 shrimp and stuffs them with a mixture similar to that of the chain’s crab cake — jumbo lump crab meat, breadcrumbs, egg yolk, chives and a little Old Bay seasoning.

The steak tartare replaced a beef carpaccio. It includes hand-diced filet mignon, red onion, capers, Dijon mustard, olive oil, egg yolk and parsley, all mixed to order and served with thin, crispy potato chips seasoned with salt, black pepper and chile pepper.

“It’s an appetizer version of steak and potatoes,” King said.

For the tomato carpaccio, King sources sweet heirloom tomatoes that he slices thinly and accompanies with Burrata, which is a balloon of fresh mozzarella around cheese curds and cream. He dresses it with 12-year-old balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil and black pepper.

“It’s a little different but something people are still comfortable with,” he said. “People are coming here and expecting a little bit of tradition. We’re not going to do things that don’t fit our concept.”

Knowing that guests like to share appetizers, King also has added a fritto misto. Italian for “mixed fried,” the preparation calls for Point Judith calamari, baby shrimp, julienned red peppers and jalapeños soaked in buttermilk. They’re all tossed in a combination of rice flour, regular flour and a little cornstarch, deep fried and served with a house-made garlic butter.

“You get this nice garlicky butter to dip the calamari and shrimp in,” he said. The addition of jalapeños was inspired by Rhode Island-style calamari, which is served with pickled peppers.

King added that, apart from having appetizers that are dramatic, appealing and fit the restaurant’s concept, it helps for servers to discuss the appetizers — to recommend a calamari and a tomato carpaccio for a four-top to share, for example.

Fitting the brand

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Gabe Gordon, chef of two-unit Beachwood BBQ, with locations in Long Beach, Calif., and nearby Seal Beach, Calif., emphasized the importance of finding the right appetizers for your restaurant.

Beachwood BBQ fried pickles
The fried pickles at Beachwood BBQ are the concept’s top seller.

“It seems that when people are coming out to a barbecue restaurant, they’re looking for a full, heavy experience,” Gordon said, adding that his best-selling appetizers are fried pickles, fried green tomatoes, macaroni and cheese, and smoked chicken wings.

“The only salady-type appetizer is a warm root-vegetable salad with smoked feta and toasted-cumin vinaigrette,” which, he said, doesn’t sell all that well.

Appetizers all need to be distinctive enough for people to know they can’t get them elsewhere, he added. So his macaroni and cheese is made with square, extruded macaroni with thick corners, so it has a nice combination of overcooked and al dente pasta to appeal to lovers of both varieties of the starchy dish. He dresses the macaroni in an aged Gruyère-beer sauce and mixes in applewood-smoked bacon, green onions and a combination of smoked Anaheim, pasilla and jalapeño peppers.

His top seller is fried pickles, which are cut to resemble crinkle-cut chips and coated in a hoppy beer batter.

“I like the bitterness that it brings out,” he said of the beer.

“Pretty much every table gets them,” he added.

Somewhat better-for-you appetizers sell well at Flying Biscuit Cafe, a 13-unit Raving Brands subsidiary based in Atlanta with a focus on lighter Southern fare. Brent Fuller, the concept’s vice president and brand leader, said the best-selling appetizer is oven-fried green tomatoes, which are dipped in egg wash and then rolled in a spiced cornmeal-flour mixture. They’re baked, finished on the grill, served with goat cheese and topped with a relish made with cilantro, Serrano peppers, cashews, red pepper flakes, honey and rice-wine vinegar.

“After [guests] eat those, they feel better and lighter than when they eat a normal, greasy version,” he said.

Red Robin Gourmet Burgers in Greenwood Village, Colo., recently finished a major rollout of appetizers, priced at $3, $5, $7 and $9, to capitalize on the fact that the casual-dining chain’s guests started buying more drinks and appetizers last year.

Appetizers at $3 include a miniature wedge salad with blue cheese crumbles, bacon bits, onion straws, diced tomatoes and ranch dressing, along with a French onion dip served with Yukon gold potato chips.

“We’d done chips in the past, and we had difficulty selling enough volume,” said Denny Marie Post, the casual-dining chain’s senior vice president and chief menu and marketing officer, adding that Red Robin’s signature offering of bottomless fries cut into potato chip sales.

So the chips also are served under a $5 half order of chicken wings and under a $9 order of Saucy Pork Riblets.

She said the addition of the chips to those shareable appetizers results in “more trips to the mouth,” which adds to value perception.

Red Robin Gourmet Burgers O-Ring Shorty
The O-Ring Shorty at Red Robin Gourmet Burgers

Red Robin also added a $5 O-Ring Shorty — a half-sized portion of its signature onion-ring tower.

Post said the full tower is too much for a two-top, “and onion rings aren’t something you’re going to take home.” The half portion enables smaller groups to order it, she said.

Red Robin’s move to add appetizers was inspired in part by the introduction last year of a hummus plate. Post said she saw that people were using hummus and soup as a meal, and it became clear that lines were blurring between appetizers, small plates, entrées and sides, “and we needed to give more options,” she said.

That included providing options for different need states, like salads for people looking for something light and shareable options for groups, especially since the chain is looking to boost bar sales.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected] [5].
Follow him on Twitter: @FoodWriterDiary [6].