Every restaurant you visit these days seems to have a “small plates” menu—each dish consisting of a few bites meant for sharing. These menu offerings encourage diners to be more adventurous, to control portions and calories, and to potentially share several smaller offerings with others.
This trend even has its own activist group, the Small Plate Movement. As a cultural phenomenon, the movement is equal parts calorie-consumption awareness, cost savings and fashion. In the National Restaurant Associations’ What’s Hot 2014 Culinary Forecast report, 67% of chefs surveyed identified “Grazing (e.g. small-plate sharing/snacking instead of traditional meals)” as a Hot Trend, landing it in the top 20 trends for 2014.
Small plates appeal to several consumer segments, including Boomers and female diners who seek portion control along with Millennials who may want to share several dishes with friends. Since we also know that consumers segment on palate preference and how adventurous they are in their tastes, small plates allow for a safer adventure. Their price point can also be appealing for those who don’t want large portions that lead to leftovers, common in American restaurants.
Small plates also tap into a different consumer perspective and need state than traditional appetizers. Technomic found that 59% of appetizers are eaten as starters. By comparison, only one-third of small plates are eaten as starters, and small plates are equally likely to be eaten as a meal. The name “small plate” has a more expansive meaning to consumers than “appetizers,” even if it’s the exact same dish. Thinking of it as a small plate moves it into the main dish role. Perceptually, small plates may seem healthier than appetizers, with their portion control, and offer greater variety than the fried food common in appetizer menus.
- Restaurants can showcase more variety because small plates take less time and effort to execute.
- Restaurants save on food costs. Small plates ultimately result in customers eating less food or paying more for the same amount of food.
- Chefs have fewer time constraints and can send out more food more quickly, as the delivery of small plates to the table don’t need to be coordinated like entrée delivery does.
- Customers will try more adventurous offerings, without the risk of getting a large portion they might not like.
Restaurant Group Darden Sees Success with Mini Market Strategy
Small plates are also making their way into large chain restaurants. Amid the declining performance of Olive Garden that led stockholders to oust the board, Darden restaurants has experienced growth with its specialty restaurant brands. In an interview with Interim CEO Gene Lee, the Orlando Sentinel reports,
“Those [specialty] restaurants have been a bright spot for Darden, particularly those that have higher average menu prices.”
One particular brand is Seasons 52, an upscale restaurant brand with a seasonally-inspired menu, which boasts, “with nothing on the menu more than 475 calories.” These menu offerings are necessarily small portions, a departure from the traditional chain-restaurant standard of large plates with lots of food.
Darden released same-restaurant sales results in September, showing Seasons 52 experienced 1.3% growth in this time (while flagship Olive Garden showed only 0.6% growth). Although Darden may have plans to sell these specialty restaurant brands, the evidence is clear that restaurants like Seasons 52 have been successful for the company.
Considering all aspects of the marketplace, the small plate menu trend seems set to become an established norm. A significant segment of consumers are growing more health or calorie-conscious, and small plates can help them feel on-target with their nutritional concerns. Chefs enjoy the freedom and pacing of this menu structure, and restaurant owners approve the revenue-generation potential and cost-savings. Whether its tapas, antipasti, mezze or just plain “grazing,” prepare for some very small plates in your dining future.