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The Bigger Potential Of Small Bites

You can’t beat an authentic tapas spot like Jose Andres’ Jaleo in Washington, where the Spanish chef and his kitchen wizards work wonders each night for an adoring crowd of food-obsessed patrons. The same goes for those even-more upscale places where multicourse tasting menus cause a lengthy parade of one- or two-bite dishes to appear at each customer’s table. Thomas Keller’s Per Se and the French Laundry, Grant Achatz’s Alinea, Charlie Trotter’s: in the right hands, at the right price point, and for the right audience, super-small plates are the way to go.

But what about everybody else? Many patrons are into smaller portions, all right, but they’re not going to order them unless it means relatively familiar food sold at relatively reasonable prices. And it’s beginning to look like more operators are beginning to figure out that a mainstream-oriented small-portion approach can provide a meaningful point of differentiation and deliver a big dividend to the bottom line.

Master of the genre is Minnies in Chicago, where mini-sandwiches packed with upscale ingredients are sold in sets of three ($8.75), six ($16.50) and 12 ($32). Want a combo deal? A three “minnie” set served with house frites and an eight-oz. carafe of wine goes for $14. The place has a full bar and delivers, too. Open for two years, the concept has added breakfast service on weekends. Given the amount of business this place does, it’s hard to believe other operators haven’t knocked off this concept for themselves. Especially since Minnies’ founder is Jonathan Segal, whose other Chicago restaurants—Japonais, Le Colonial and P.J. Clarke’s—are long-running hits.

Minnies is located in a cool neighborhood in a relatively food-crazed town, where people willingly spend money to try new dining options. What about the suburbs?

You can’t get more suburban than T.G.I. Friday’s, an anchor tenant at more outlying malls than we can count. Friday’s challenge is keeping its menu fresh and relevant, which it does by making changes every quarter, often employing low-risk versions of current hot trends. Like many restaurants, it has offered hamburger trios for awhile. This fall, the chain is offering three versions of what it has dubbed “Friday’s Sliders” to its appetizer menu. Guests can choose the original version (three mini-burgers with all the trimmings), cheeseburger sliders (ditto) and chimichurri sliders (three mini burgers topped with Provolone cheese and a savory garlic and herb sauce).

How well do mini portions work for Friday’s? This fall the chain is expanding the concept to its dessert offerings with something it’s calling Mini Dessert Shots. Guests can pick two of any of the following flavors of ice cream: Rocky Road, Chocolate Raspberry, Peanut Butter Cup, Chocolate Chip Mint and Orange Crème. Groundbreaking stuff? Hardly, but this chain knows as much about how to sell to the masses as anyone. It’s worth following the Friday’s lead.

But no one may be doing it better than Sample in Buffalo. This small independent restaurant describes itself as “an all hors d’oeuvre restaurant where people can sample many different items from the menu in one sitting. Sample’s mission is to reinvent the restaurant experience. Our goal is to mimic the ambiance and comfort of a cocktail party.”

Translation: It’s a chef-driven (Aaron Dombroski) concept that offers only amuse-bouche-sized portions, each of them individually priced. Patrons can order as many or as few items as they wish, but there are but 12 options on the menu. The least-expensive item is “Peas and Carrots,” savory carrot cake with pea puree and sugar snap pea and carrot salad that goes for $1.50. The most-expensive is Veal Oscar, which combines a seared piece of veal with a lump crab cake, asparagus and tomato foam. It costs $3.75. Other options include:

  • Lobster cappuccino: Thai lobster broth topped with coconut ginger foam ($2.00)
  • Chowder: Crabmeat and corn chowder with smoked apple bacon and Yukon gold potatoes ($2.50)
  • Greek Salad: Marinated cucumbers, tomatoes, kalamata olives and feta cheese on a fried pita ($2.50)
  • Rice and Beans: Wild mushroom risotto cake with a baby white bean and arugula salad ($1.75)
  • Short Stack: Mini-stack of potato pancakes with caramelized apple “pearls” and crème fraiche ($1.75)
  • Egg Benedict: Poached quail egg atop crispy pancetta and a house-made English muffin with herbed hollandaise ($2.25)
  • Beef on Weck: Thinly sliced sirloin braised in red wine and fresh horseradish served on a house-made kimmelwek roll $2.25)
  • Lobster Roll: Tender lobster salad with napa cabbage served in a house-made herb buttered bun ($3.25)
  • Backyard BBQ: BBQ smoked chicken, napa cabbage coleslaw atop a sweet corn muffin ($3.00)
  • Steak Bearnaise: seared sirloin steak and shallot confit served in a potato cup with bearnaise sauce ($3.25)

That’s it—a 12-item menu. The genius here is that Sample’s fare mostly offers tiny takes on local and regional favorites instead of obscure foreign fare, all of it delivered with amped-up flavor. This restaurant meets the less-adventurous diner halfway, which we argue is the key to small-plate longevity in most markets. Keep Minnies, Friday’s and Sample in mind the next time you’re thinking up new revenue-generating ideas for your operation.

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