Scallops with Spanish Pommes Anna
By Maya Dollarhide
In the past, a side dish was merely an accompaniment to a main meal—steak with potatoes or side salad with salmon—but as the small dish/ shared plate trend continues into 2017, chefs are discovering the power side dishes wield.
Consequently, there’s no need to sideline your side dish offerings!
Restaurants menuing creative sides will likely find themselves with higher check averages and more satisfied customers, who will be more willing to eat outside their culinary comfort zones.
“While we do serve rice and beans, we have toyed around with a lot of different sides as well,” shares Chef Akhtar Nawab, founder and executive chef of Choza Taqueria inside NYC’s Gotham West Market in Manhattan.“One of the most successful sides that Choza Taqueria has offered is a contemporary esquites dish—a common Mexican street food comprised of shaved corn, lime, cotija cheese, and mayonnaise.”
That dish, a seasonal summer favorite thanks to Nawab’s decision to use local corn to create a lighter, fresher dish without so much fat, is likely to return this year.
“Instead of frying the corn in butter, we grill it, and then shave it off the cob. As an alternative to mayonnaise, we used an avocado puree, and added lime juice, cotija cheese, and a little spicy chile piquin. The customers loved it,” Nawab says.
Seasonal spins like the one mentioned above are a great way to highlight new dishes, shares Nawab. “It can be a little trickier in the winter months, since we’re in such a fast paced environment. Lately, braised greens with pico de gallo, mushrooms, and serrano chile have been great for us.”
The Avocado’s Role
No matter the season, one side dish staple is available year-round: the avocado.
“The versatility of avocados and the year-round availability of avocados from Mexico mean they can be incorporated into a variety of different menu items 365 days a year,” says Chef Mark Garcia, director of foodservice marketing for Avocados From Mexico. “Restaurant owners and chefs have already recognized the demand for the fruit and have begun incorporating avocados into their side dishes, such as avocado fries.”
This fruity addition is a draw for customers and a bonus for restaurant owners. Case in point: In 2016, Avocados from Mexico conducted a survey of more than 3,000 customers who stated they wanted restaurants to add more fresh items to their menus. The survey also reported that customers are willing to pay an average of $1.81 more for items with an avocado add-on. This fact easily translates to side dishes.
“Given the option of selecting something fresh and creative in place of rice and beans, many customers would opt for a slightly more expensive side dish,” says Garcia.
Sides Encourage Sampling
There are many ways to introduce new side dishes to your clientele, says Dr. David Mitroff, founder of Piedmont Avenue Consulting Inc., who works with restaurants and franchises on ways to create brand awareness and strengthen customer loyalty.
Mitroff, whose clients include Mexican venues in the San Francisco Bay area, says it is important to help customers become familiar with unfamiliar food.
"One way they can do it is to create a sampler platter as a side dish or appetizer with a selection of entrees. This allows food exploration without a commitment of finishing off a large portion of unfamiliar food,” he reports.
For example, El Huarache Azteca in Oakland, Calif., often offers a sampler plate that features two tostaditas, two mini pambazos, two mini huaraches, and two mini flautas. The sampler platter costs more than an entree would, and typically people order the sampler and entrees, as well—regardless of how hesitant they are to pay extra—in order to be guaranteed satisfaction from at least part of their order, Mitroff explains.
Creating a platter of sides is one way to boost check averages and let customers try offerings they may opt to order again on a repeat visit, Mitroff adds.
A smaller-sized dish also can be a fun way to cook up new menu items.
“We serve a queso tamale with a buttermilk and tomatillo salsa—it’s super tasty, but because it’s so rich, it’s a once in a while treat,” says Nawab. “I have been toying with a quesadilla made with corn tortillas, cactus, poblano peppers, and a little chipotle salsa, too. Cactus isn’t so common in the fast-casual world, but at Choza Taqueria, we try hard to meet the demand while still being a bit different.”
Vegetables as Sides
In Chicago’s bustling Lakeview/Wrigleyville neighborhood, the recently opened Tuco & Blondie (a project of Chicago’s 4 Star Restaurant Group) focuses on easy-to-eat Mexican food.
“The idea behind Tuco & Blondie is that we wanted to do a better and fresher version of the comfort Mexican food chains,” shares general manager Ethan Alderete. “We wanted to have familiar items on our menu but do them with a twist,” he says.
For example, one side dish on Tuco & Blondie’s menu is a $4 escabeche made with pickled cauliflower, carrots, jalapeños, plus avocado covered with oregano vinaigrette.
“This is a popular side dish for us. We are relatively new—we opened in late September/ early October—and so we are still solidifying our menu. This item, along with our elotes, an off-the-cob corn dish, is often ordered as an appetizer, too. I do think people are looking for something beyond the traditional rice and beans dish,” shares Alderete. “You can do a lot to rice and beans but at the end of the day, it can be heavy as a side dish.”
In many restaurants appetizers and side dishes can be interchangeable, as more customers order a variety of small plates in lieu of an entree.
“We definitely see our customers order items a la carte. I do think side dishes, which are similarly priced as our desserts—can add four to five dollars to a check and that can add up during the course of the week,” Alderete says. Tuco & Blondie is relatively new but similar to other 4 Star-owned restaurants, he says the restaurant plans to use local and seasonal vegetables in the spring. “We will be using them on our menu and plan to add daily or weekly side specials too,” the general manager plans. “There are so many great farms in proximity to Chicago to utilize.”
In the heart of San Diego, Don Chido’s chef, Andre Alto, says his customers frequently order sides such as a ceviche or guacamole as an entrée. “A lot of guests treat our side dishes as entrees at Don Chido—especially when it comes to our shrimp ceviche and bowl of guacamole,” he says.
Alto agrees that any side dish will most likely boost profit margins at the end of the day. And like Garcia, he reports that the number one up-sell is adding guacamole to anything. In 2017, he believes we will see more kinds of ceviche and flavored guacamoles on menus.
“Following a few 2017 culinary trends, we plan on adding some surprises to the menu in terms of ingredients, including roasted garlic and pomegranates,” he shares.
In some restaurants side dishes are often sidelined, added to the bottom of the menu or mentioned in conjunction with entrees. Marketing side dishes in the form of a daily or weekly special is a great way to rotate new menu items, Mitroff says.
He also suggests that servers offer samples of side dishes to returning customers.
“For example, if you have a regular customer who typically orders the same items, try offering them a different side dish or a sample of a new side dish on the house,” he says.
Educated and enthusiastic servers who can steer customers toward new menu items are key to promoting side dishes.
“You want servers who can explain to customers why they should try a new dish—what is in it, why they might enjoy it—and explain why a side dish is a good option, especially if they don’t want to commit to a big entrée,” says Mitoff.
And side dishes don’t have to be an afterthought of a meal.
“Introducing restaurant guests to new dishes as a side, as opposed to an entrée, is a great way to encourage them to get out of their comfort zones and try something new, while still allowing them to enjoy their traditional favorites,” says Garcia. “Guests are more open to try something new in a smaller portion and smaller price, and once they like it, they’re probably more likely to order it at a higher price point.”
Maya Dollarhide is a New York-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to el Restaurante.