August 2014 Newsletter

Aug 26, 2014


With all the industry talk lately about QSRs and fast casual restaurants and how they are performing respectively in the current economic climate, we couldn’t help but notice this article in Nation’s Restaurant News concerning how guests feel about these two categories.

Long story short: Consumers want quick-service restaurants to behave more like the fast casuals, offering more amenities and services like delivery, upgraded environments and better food quality. And that will continue to put more pressure on traditional QSRs, especially established brands like McDonald’s, which is already suffering weakened sales.

After all, when you’ve got Which Wich offering drive-thrus and Panera joining Chipotle in removing artificial ingredients, it’s going to take a lot for fast feeders to keep up with the twin advances in convenience and quality being rolled out by fast casual players.

You can expect to see more news on these issues in this space over the coming months. In the meantime please enjoy our articles on building employee loyalty, why the small plates trend continues to grow, and how to use spice mixtures to elevate your menu.

To your success, Dean Small and Danny Bendas

Creating Loyalty—the Employee Kind

By Joan Lang


Turnover is accepted as a given in fast-paced minimum-wage industries like foodservice—but it doesn’t have to be.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS), turnover rose slightly in 2013, from 61.0% in 2012 to 62.6% last year. This compares to 42.2% in the private sector overall. And while this represents a significant improvement of pre-Great Recession turnover of greater than 80%, too many good employees leaving their jobs still hurts.

Experts estimate that it costs upwards of twice an employee’s salary to find and train a replacement. Turnover can leave shifts uncovered and compromise food quality and guest service—and therefore an establishment’s reputation. And excessive “churn” can also damage morale among remaining employees.

Just as it’s important to create loyalty among guests, then, you want your staff to be loyal to you as an employer.
Here’s how to do it:

1. Hire the best people for the job.

Finding and hiring the best employees is probably the single most important thing you can do to keep people in their jobs for the long run. Interview and vet candidates carefully, not just to ensure they have the right skills but also that they fit well with the company culture, managers and co-workers.

o If necessary, seek a consultant or employee placement firm for key hires.

2. Invest in training.

The second important piece in the puzzle is giving employees the skills they need to do their job. Whether it’s shadowing an experienced server, studying manuals or using online training modules, or pulling shifts in the kitchen, training procedures will pay off in job success and employee satisfaction.

o Make job procedures and company policies available to all employees when they’re hired, and keep them up-to-date.

o Use pre-shift meetings, special training sessions (such as a wine tasting hosted by a distributor-partner) and other resources to build skills and keep them current.

3. Pay attention to the basics.

Provide a fair wage and benefits (and remember that “benefits” can also mean perks like free uniforms or laundering, employee meals, educational assistance, discounts on food and paper goods, staff gatherings, car-pooling, and flexible scheduling). Show respect and fair-mindedness to everyone who works for you—you don’t have to get involved in their personal lives but you should be well aware that they have them.

o Train managers to improve communication skills and devise a practical plan for resolving conflicts among your staff to keep them happy and productive.

o Incent top performers to recruit their friends.

4. Make company expectations clear.

Communicate your goals, standards and expectations at every opportunity, both through documentation such as mission statements and through day-to-day interactions. Share your thinking behind decisions, especially when you introduce anything new, and involve them in as many strategic initiatives as possible. If your goal is to increase sales of desserts, for example, tell both your service and kitchen staff why it’s important and engage their ideas for making it happen. Provide context for everything that affects them.

5. Offer guidance—and recognition.

Let employees know how they’re doing, both informally and with formal tools such as reviews and recognition. Honest mistakes should be viewed as learning opportunities, for the employee and the entire crew, not an occasion for criticism. And give praise publicly for a job well-done, whether it’s providing great service to a customer or forecasting demand more accurately. As author Todd Patkin puts it, “catch them doing something right.”

o Recognition is one of the most important factors in ongoing job satisfaction; in fact, according to a recent GloboForce Workforce Mood Tracker, 73% of respondents credit recognition for having a positive impact on their happiness at work.

o Consider events like sales contests or cost-improvement initiatives that allow staff to excel at their jobs—and be rewarded for it in measurable ways, such as a gift certificate or prize (this is a great way to use rewards points from a purchasing program).

6. Give employees “ownership” of their jobs.

Empowering staff to do their jobs goes beyond training into everyday decision-making. Demonstrate trust and provide flexibility. Create guidelines—for instance, what kinds of substitutions can be made by servers and kitchen without seeking management approval? When can a complementary dessert be offered?—but allow for impromptu problem-solving.

o Wherever possible, do what’s necessary to make jobs easier, whether that’s streamlining cooking procedures, making sure there’s plenty of glassware, or using tablets for ordering, which will increase accuracy and give servers more time at their tables.

o Encourage employees to create their own team solutions for getting the job done.

7. Listen to their ideas.

Create an environment that encourages two-way communication. Your employees are “on the ground” every day, and are in the ideal position to share guest feedback and provide you with all kinds of ideas for doing things better. For instance, an employee may notice that doing basic maintenance on a particular machine once a week, as opposed to once a month, keeps it running more smoothly. Or servers may field lots of guest requests for items you don’t have on the menu or services you don’t offer. Get them to share that information.

o If necessary, have regular “off-the-record” discussions with employees.

o Consider conducting a periodic survey (anonymous if necessary) to ascertain how your staff feels about you, your business, and their jobs.

8. Provide for growth.

Being able to stay on a learning curve will keep your best employees happier and more productive. Cross-training not only helps fill shifts, but it gives employees an opportunity to “switch it up” and learn new skills. One company we know pays for English lessons for its non-English-speaking employees, but you could also find sources for such life-skills help as establishing a savings or investment plan.

o Try sending key employees to industry events such as a local restaurant show, wine tasting or management skills training seminar, or dine-around-town events.

o Savvy employers also factor in opportunities for staff members when making the decision to add a new service, such as catering, or open a new restaurant.

9. Be aware that the customer isn’t always right.

Employees have rights, too, and you shouldn’t hesitate to adopt policies that recognize that. A recent post in Craigslist revealed some thought-provoking evidence that guest behavior can influence service. Customers can be distracted, overly demanding, rude or even abusive, and you should let employees know, tacitly or directly, that you support your staff as well as your guests. You may have to walk an uncomfortable line—such as requesting that guests not use cell phones, or keep their children from playing in the aisles—but satisfied employees make for satisfied customers, and that builds loyalty all around.

10. Conduct exit interviews.

When longtime staff decide to leave, ask them why. Use the opportunity to find out what you could be doing differently.


What’s the Big Deal about Small Plates?

By Joan Lang


There ought to be a bumper sticker: “Honk if you’re Opening a Small Plates Restaurant.” The now-famous parody menu (and the legions of comments it inspired) almost takes the small-plates trend to task for being predictable and derivative, but there’s no doubt that the concept is transforming the face of dining out in this country.

The words “small plates for sharing” may make some jaded restaurantgoers groan, but by and large today’s food-obsessed consumers love them. And why not? Small plates represent a chance to taste lots of different things and put together a totally bespoke dining experience, answering the call for variety and customization that are the marching orders for the industry today. It’s a formula that’s tailor-made to satisfy that all-important millennial guest, as chains like Olive Garden are beginning to discover.

That the trend shows no sign of abating, however, is also a function of how chefs and restaurateurs feel about small plates.
For one thing, small plates can lead to big checks. All those $6, $8 and $10 plates give diners a “why-not” price point that encourages them to order one or two more, especially when there’s a group of friends who are there to socialize and sample. The tempting diversity of foods on a small plates menu can lead to a kind of ordering euphoria, and if ever there were going to be a time for a creative chef to sell customers on something unusual like octopus or cauliflower, it’s with a low risk price and portion size.

Small wonder, then, that small plates appear on many of today’s most successful business plans. Between the spiced almonds and the deviled eggs ordered while the menu is first being considered to the final, multiple desserts, the average check at a small plates establishment can easily run 20-40% higher than at a comparable three-course restaurant. Small plates can also significantly reduce food costs and waste, while simplifying inventory.

For one thing, smaller portions means it’s easier to utilize trim, especially on high-ticket protein items like beef and seafood, as anyone who has put tuna poke on the menu can attest. And as far as bell-ringer specialty ingredients like bottarga or imported cheese, you don’t need much to make an impact on a 2- or 3-ounce menu item. Mise en place needs to be tight, because many small plates tend to be thoughtfully composed and high in quality, but then again it ought to be tight in a well-run kitchen. And for every elaborate plate of compressed suckling pig with microgreens and roasted cipollini onions that needs to be assembled to order, there are the warm spiced olives that are essentially ready to serve.

In many small plates restaurants, the orders aren’t coursed by the servers or timed by the kitchen; they come out when they’re ready. That means several things, including bye-bye expensive expeditor, for one. Food is delivered more quickly, so tables can theoretically turn more quickly.

And where there is food, there is also drink, in the form of high-margin cocktails, wine and beer—in fact, many of the first “small plates” establishments were sophisticated wine bars, where small tastes of things like olives, cheese, and other little tapas-like nibbles were offered in the service of by-the-glass sales. The fact that bar seating also saved a lot of the square footage required for traditional tables was just sweetening in the pot, so you could say the wine bar trend was the precursor to the efficiently spaced sea of high tops and petite tables that make small plates establishments both more convivial and more profitable on a sales-per-square-foot basis.

One of the latest wrinkles in the small plates genre is the “large format” specialty: the whole fish, the Amish chicken for two, the super-premium Porterhouse for the whole table to share. These premium items support premium pricing, and make for the kind of memorable signature dish all operators are looking for. And the fact that they are almost always served a la carte means there is opportunity for selling side dishes, either as more small plates or as a family-style portion.

Finally, small plates are fun for the staff, affording a rollicking, super-creative menumaking style where there really isn’t much to lose in trying something new. There’s tremendous versatility in utilization. Seasonality and daily specials fit right in. The servers love it because they can make more money.

What’s not to love?

Light Up Your Menu with Spice Blends and Condiments

By Joan lang

Bold flavors are the “it” ingredients for creating lively signature recipes, and almost nothing is easier to use than global spice mixtures and condiments—witness the runaway popularity of flavor builders like Cajun spice, jerk seasoning and sriracha.

Here are some ideas for seasonings that are starting to trend now, many of them virtual shorthand for the cuisine they stem from. The best part is you don’t need your own proprietary blend to take advantage of the flavor boost and marketing backstory. Many of these products are available already prepared, or you can easily make your own.


– A savory Serbian paste made with bright red-roasted peppers, garlic and sometimes eggplant, ajvar brings a smoky, relishy flavor to grilled meats, stews, as a spread for crostini and more. A similar product is Portuguese massa de pimentão, which is also useful in a marinade

Chermoula (or charmoula)

– Traditionally used in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria to season fish, this aromatic blend of olive oil, coriander, cumin, citrus, paprika, garlic, cilantro and chile is easy to make in-house, and can also be used to dress vegetables and roast chicken


– An Egyptian mixture of sesame seeds, roasted chickpeas, hazelnuts, coriander, cumin, and salt and pepper, dukkah can be used to create a flavorful crust on meats and other proteins, as a dust on vegetables, or even served simply in a bowl as a memorable addition to the bread service

Garam Masala

– You knew that there’s no such thing as curry powder in India, right? Instead cooks there and here use a bespoke blend of ground spices that might range from cardamom and turmeric to cumin and black pepper. Find one that works for you to bring Indian flavors to recipes—then try it on popcorn as a bar snack


– Used throughout North Africa, this fiery yet versatile condiment is made with lots of dried chilies, pounded together with cumin and coriander seed, garlic, olive oil and salt. Traditional uses include as a dip for grilled meat, as a condiment for couscous, and to add a kick to soups and stews, but harissa has become very popular with heat seeking chefs and customers in all kinds of restaurants

Old Bay

– This traditional Maryland Eastern Shore spice blend, often used in seafood boils and crab cakes, is experiencing a bit of an artisanal rebirth, bringing its balanced flavors of mustard, paprika, cloves and celery salt to all kinds of food and drink, including Bloody Marys and even beer

Ras el hanout

– A versatile Moroccan spice blend that can contain as many as 30 different ingredients (the name means “top of the shop,” as in spice shop), including ground cumin, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, coriander, cayenne, allspice, nutmeg and cloves. It make a killer spice rub for grilled and roasted meats


– With interest in Japanese ingredients at an all-time high thanks to the popularity of menu items like sushi and ramen, this Japanese table condiment is picking up steam. The standard chile-based mixture can also include orange peel, seaweed, ginger, poppy seeds, and sesame seeds, adding texture as well as flavor to foods


– This curry-like Indian seasoning blend shows its French colonial influences with shallot, onion, fenugreek, cumin, and curry leaf in addition to such masala ingredients as turmeric, coriander, and mustard seed. Use to make French-style curried chicken salad, as a marinade for shrimp or fish, or wherever you would use regular curry powder


– Also known as zahtar, this tangy, herbal Middle Eastern spice blend is predominately ground sumac, roasted sesame seeds, and green herbs such as oregano, basil, thyme, marjoram. It is used to flavor meats and vegetables, or mixed with olive oil and used as a marinade or a spread for flatbread. Za’atar can also bring a lively texture to dishes like yogurt dips or scrambled eggs

Tip of the Month

More on Spices

A bit of an oversimplification perhaps, but this fun chart from Business Insider suggests how you can recreate the flavors of 36 world cuisines using only three spices/seasonings per cuisine, as in onion, lard and paprika for Hungarian food, or parsley, garlic and mint for Persian.