Sharable small plates have been on trend for years. But with consumers’ growing demand for local, sustainable meat and produce as well as their interest in communal dining and health, chefs and restaurant operators can capitalize on these cravings with small plates.
“Appetizers, small plates, and accompaniments are becoming more of a draw,” says Darren Tristano of Technomic. “Highlighting the sharable, fun factor of these foods—as well as their versatility—helps them function as menu differentiators.” The casual fine dining scene “is lively and energetic, with a social atmosphere that often includes communal seating and a menu composed entirely of shared plates,” according to Datassential’s 10 Food Trends to Watch in 2015.
Customers are looking for the chance to customize a menu, allowing them to share portions and sample a wide variety of dishes. One-third of consumers purchase small plates as either a starter or entrée, according to Technomic’s Starters, Small Plates and Sides Consumer Trend Report. Marketing such dishes as appetizers offers an added bonus by helping boost the check average. Three or more small plates can add up to a full meal, replacing the main attraction.
Specifically, small plates with an ethnic spin are popular; 39% say unique or ethnic flavor profiles influence their decision to order small plates. More restaurants are using Asian ingredients and flavors, such as Korean cuisine’s gochujang and kimchi.
Sharables also tap into the health-conscious trend. Consumers see small plates as healthier options that offer more bang for their buck. Technomic reported that 61% opt for small plates to eat healthier and 55% want to avoid heavy foods.
Pushing its way into the center of the plate, vegetables are now a popular menu option. Some top restaurants are eschewing the traditional “appetizer, entrée, and sides” formula for one that gives vegetables its own category alongside fish and meat. Through creative preparations, whether roasted or raw, vegetables — especially seasonal and local — make for appealing small plates that provide value and nutrition.
A popular small plate is the charcuterie board, which brings together the old tradition of cured meats and today’s trends. Consumers want to know where their food comes from, and nose-to-tail cooking fills that need while cutting food costs. Using the whole animal, chefs can craft artisan meats, sausages, and pâtés in house. Similar to trends involving cured meats, chefs are making their own ricotta, mozzarella, and other fresh cheeses.
Also along the same vein, signature relishes and spreads can round out the board and are another way for operators to put their spin on small plates. Pickled vegetables were among Nation’s Restaurant News’ Top 5 trends in restaurant side dishes, adding a bright, acidic complement to salty, savory meats and cheeses. Or simply including fresh, seasonal produce brings color and crunch to the plate, making for a visually appealing presentation.
Sharable meals have proven to be more than just a flash in the pan. By sharing with their companions, diners can have a taste of everything while creating a fun, dynamic dining experience away from home.