Raising the Bar
By Jaymi Curley
The alpha and omega of the dining experience, cocktails and desserts, seem to keep selling, even in lean times. For the customer,they represent the fun and decadent side of dining out, but for the restaurant owner, these two profit centers can be a lucrative path to securing both the bottom line and the goodwill of their customers.
Despite the recent squeeze that is being put on the restaurant industry, it seems that diners who are still patronizing restaurants are bent on having what Jonathan St. Hilaire, Head Pastry Chef for the Concentrics Restaurant Group, calls “the full experience,” and are figuring out ways to have their cake and eat it too, even on a smaller budget.
“They may share an appetizer, have the entrÃ©e and then share a dessert,” says Chef St. Hilaire. “It’s not so much cutting out anything, just figuring out a way to afford all three courses. People want their chocolate, they want their custard and they want their fruit.”
As such, Chef St. Hilaire is reporting fairly steady traffic in the dessert side of Concentrics’ operations even through the current economic pressures. “[Sales] change more from winter to people getting ready for swimsuit season.”
The costs to the kitchen of bringing a little sweetness to the lives of customers are relatively small when compared with the majority of the food budget.
“I don’t have much loss to take into consideration,” says Chef St. Hilaire. “You might burn something here and there, but at the end of the day we’re talking about pennies. A 50-pound bag of flour is maybe $15. An egg is three cents.” Not all the necessities are to be had for pennies, though, and Chef St. Hilaire reports wholesale chocolate costs that can range from $4 per pound to “$12 per pound for some of the best chocolate.”
Still, Chef St. Hilaire points out that the benefits of an attractive dessert menu cannot be understated. “If I have a plate cost of $1.25 and I am getting, maybe, $6 for a dessert, the rewards
are so much greater.”
Among the more popular dessert trends right now is the use of savory ingredients mixed in with sweet, like using goat cheese in cheesecake, or the popular tart frozen yogurts that have begun to dot the Georgia restaurant scene. A trend Chef St. Hilaire sees as very advantageous, however, is the offering of mini-dessert “tastings,” served in small portion vessels like shot glasses.
He is not alone. The National Restaurant Association’s chef survey “What’s Hot in 2009,” released last October, listed “bitesize/ mini desserts” as the second most popular food trend based on a nationwide poll of more than 1,600 chefs.
For Chef St. Hilaire, it makes sense from both a culinary and a customer service angle.
“People don’t eat the same way anymore. They don’t just expect one flavor note through a whole meal. Dessert tastings let them explore.”
The added incentive of smaller prices for the mini-desserts can also be a big draw for the diner.
“Even coming off a dollar, two dollars from the regular price is reasonable,” says Chef St. Hilaire. “If I was selling a 5-ounce tart, and now I am selling a 3-ounce tart, it’s my way of saying to the customer, â€˜I’m going to come up with a way I can keep selling more desserts, but at the same time I’m going to help you save some money and you still get to enjoy them.’”
The farm-to-table food trend, in which chefs strive to use as many local and/or organic ingredients as possible, gets limited play in the pastry kitchen, with Chef St. Hilaire only applying the concept where it will make the most difference in flavor or quality, rather than across the board.
“If I am creating a tart, my flour’s organic, but the butter, the sugar, probably not,” he says.
A score of excellent local fruit would be treated with minimal prep to highlight the quality the chef is paying for.
“I’m not going to stew them or put them in a cobbler with a whole bunch of other flavors. I’ll probably use them on top or macerate them, something that will bring out that flavor for the customer. You have to think about how you are using your ingredients.”
Mixologist Greg Best, a part-owner of Holeman and Finch Public House, also sees this “farm-to-glass” approach as a valuable trend in the restaurant bar trade. Best firmly believes in “using all fresh juices, dispensing with high fructose corn syrups and other chemicals, and making your own grenadine syrup or mint syrup for juleps.”
Though labor intensive, Best believes the jump in quality and flavor provided by fresh local and organic fruits and juices keeps his patrons coming back for more.
Says Best, “I think it has gone a great way to make cocktails visually appealing,” he says. “The customer getting to see those fresh juices squeezed right in front of them adds to the value of the drink they’re going to enjoy.”
Navarro Carr, head mixologist from Beleza Lounge, also sees this approach as a way of connecting to the customer.
“From a storytelling standpoint, knowing something about the types of ingredients you use and specifically where they are from is a win-win.”
Dovetailing with the rise of fresh ingredients as a focal point of the bar trade is a craze for classic cocktails. As the customer takes more of an interest in these drinks, a great mixologist has to make sure that they are a part of his or her repertoire.
“People are into it,” says Best. “They are educating themselves, so bartenders have no choice but to stay on top of that learning curve. You buy books and do a bit of research so that you know how to make, say, that Manhattan in the correct way, or that whiskey sour properly, with egg white.”
Carr says that with these recipes, some of which have been around since the 1800s, along with some creative twists on some traditional bar favorites and “something a little out of the box,” a good bartender will be able to create a bar menu with the broadest appeal to the customer base.
Both Chef St. Hilaire and Carr advise not to underestimate the value of hosting events to help drive traffic and create relationships between the bar or restaurant and its customer base. Chef St. Hilaire recommends courting locals
who are in the know with an invitation to a meet-and-greet for the venue.
At Beleza, Carr and his staff host monthly cocktail classes that have developed a very regular following.
“It’s one of our biggest successes,” says Carr. “On a slow night we can do this cocktail class and attract 25 to 30 people who have purchased the all-inclusive cocktail experience.”
In addition to the benefit of developing a loyal crowd of educated cocktail enthusiasts, the students often stay for additional mingling that develops into meals.
Carr is greatly in favor of hosting events as often as the bar calendar allows. “Things are lean right now,” he says, “and building relationships is crucial.”
With the nonprofit group or individual booker delivering both the audience and usually some sort of marketing for the event, Carr sees these as opportunities that should never be passed up.
“You’re missing out if you let even one of these events slip through your fingers. People get to experience your bar, see your menu, taste your food.” When a good time is had by all, the captive audience of the event night often turns into repeat business.
Best doesn’t necessarily agree. “It’s tricky. Events and sponsorships can be great, but it can hurt you in the long run if you get in the habit of relying on them. You’re not operating on a true scale. [At Holeman and Finch] we don’t book events during normal business hours. I think it may be more important for restaurants who are trying to establish themselves in an area where there is a high volume of restaurant traffic.”
Ultimately, while popularity is going to drive business in a bar or restaurant, both Best and Carr are wary of creating artificial buzz, which can backfire in the long run. “You can manufacture hipness. You pay attention to the current trends in music, on TV. You see what is drawing people to look and apply these trends to your place,” says Best. “But I think that kind of hip can go out of style just as fast as it comes in. A place that is doing something that feels real to the consumer has a way of becoming fashionable whether you intend it to or not.”
“When all the smoke is gone, true relationships, good service, creativity and connecting with the community – that’s the long-term hipness,” says Carr. “That’s the hipness that keeps you in business.”