Balancing Local Ingredients and Cost Effectiveness Menus

Dave Farmer Uncategorized

Originally appeared in Hotel Executive in August, 2018

Let’s just start by talking about the 22-37-year-old elephant in the room; The Millennial Generation is a product of participation trophies. They feel entitled to a $100k job two days after graduation. They find a date for Saturday night, then a great restaurant to go to, and directions to the closest theater, all within ten minutes of use from their ever-present smart device.

They never had it like us; I walked 8 miles to school through snow in summer uphill both ways. We used school supplies called “pencils.” Teachers wrote on “chalkboards.” We got a newspaper every three days; we didn’t have information that happened 30 seconds ago somewhere on the other side of the world at our fingertips. They will just never understand how easy they have it.

And so on, and so on, and so on.  (Please don’t inundate me with emails; this was all meant tongue-in-cheek, of course.)

We’ve all heard these stereotypes from anyone that grew up when Pearl Jam was just getting started and those that still remember when lemon-colored kitchen appliances were hip. Being hospitality executives, we have maybe even seen examples in front of our very eyes. Our teams are likely populated by members of the millennial generation.

But can anyone deny the buying power of today’s pre-30 year old? Or the ability to talk about the most efficient way to find out what is now the hottest trend in, well, anything? I recently needed to find out what a WeWork was; I asked my 29-year old CSM and her twin sister. After a few painful seconds of pointing and laughing, they got me an answer, no Google search needed.

If you and your property execs are sitting at your Tuesday meeting and saying that “they are just not our market,” you are watching a lot of revenue head down the street. But there is a lot more to this group than avocado toast with cage-free pasture raised chicken eggs and the local craft IPA with hints of saddle leather. And if you are ignoring those potential revenue-building opportunities, someone else won’t be.

Sometimes “What,” Always “Why”

Early in my hospitality management life, I was a point-and-shout manager. Those days, bartenders and servers responded to direction much differently than today’s guest service associate. As I got older and continued to use this method with my staff, I subsequently saw a good number of them working happy hour across the street two weeks later. Realizing I needed to adapt or tend bar myself, I set my mind to changing my motivational strategy. Today’s millennial service industry employee is far more interested in the “why” part of their tasks and duties. They want to know the benefit of them and the benefit to their guests, and how they go hand-in-hand.

The same can be said about their food choices. Give a 27-year-old a smoothie with all the ingredients listed, their response is likely “meh.” Tell them that the local organic blueberries in that smoothie are chalk-full of antioxidants and the picked-this-morning strawberries are loaded with vitamin C that will help their immune system, and it’s “Oh, snap!”

The desire for fresh produce and protein that is humanely grown at the farm no more than 20 miles from the barstool they are seated at is bound to draw the environmentally-conscious millennial. The need to feel good about what we eat is almost as important as the custom seasoning the chef uses on that Colorado black angus tenderloin.

Great, But Here Comes The Tab…

You toil over the menu with your executive chef. You utilize local farms for the spinach and kale salad, the airline chicken breasts have never once been put in any type of cage, and the cream for the in-house spun dessert only comes from the Guernsey that eats flowers and grass from mountain hillsides. Total tab for the three-course meal: $48 at 32% COGS. One problem; they only have a $50 per diem, and they bought the $25 organic frisee salad with sustainably-grown salmon over lunch.

One trait with the millennial age group that cannot be ignored if you really wish to capture that business is they will not sacrifice quality ingredients for cheaper menu items. But gathering that milk for the mountainside-grass fed cow is getting more expensive and harder to find, so at what point do we eat the cost to welcome the business? I’ve had an easier time balancing quality girlfriend time with golf.

The importance of keeping costs down and showing profit gains goes without saying. The company that hired that young person has cut per diems down for that exact reason, as well. Understanding that aids in building the menu with quality local ingredients while keeping the lights on.

Get Happy!

More and more I am finding myself staying at my property through Happy Hour, not just to help the bartenders load the dishwasher when we are running low on clean wine glasses, but also to sit back and really observe our guest demographic. Quick glance: its young, its local. And they are often eating early dinner with the happy hour food specials. Having small-plate options that make available the chance to try numerous items for a perceived value is a strategy we have seen pay off. Given the chance to just get a quick bite to prevent the pre-dinner buzz or eating only apps for an early dinner leaves the experience up to the guest. But don’t think for a second that those cheap ingredients are going to fly. Keep it fresh, small and fun. We have seen that offering items off the everyday menu at a discount is not as effective as having an ever-changing limited menu with options that allow most everyone to find something that will draw them in, even just for a quick snack and drink before meeting their colleagues for dinner. And keep it light and refreshing. The deep-fried options are great for game day, not every day. As far as beverage options; well, that is another whole article in and of itself.

Salads First

Let’s start where most meals do; the greens. Quality produce to build your salad selections can be an eye-catcher on your menu. Lunch salads have outsold sandwiches almost 3 to 1 at my current property. And no, it’s not just thanks to the ladies who lunch; today’s male consumer is far more health conscious than 20 years ago. Having just recently crossed over onto “40 Island” myself, I am spending more time in the produce section than the cookie aisle these days.

Keeping local is important to the guest and is vital to your ability to keep the millennial guest inside your four walls. Keeping seasonal and local is far more important to your P&L. Find greens that are in season. Surplus of goods leads to lower costs. Grab the frisee year-round but save the escarole for your spring/summer menu. Artichokes and bitter melon are abundant for your autumn ideas. Pull the corn and the eggplant by Labor Day. Of course, the regions that can grow most salad accoutrements without the worry of seasonality should also be conscious of trends and quality even without the need to consider availability. Keeping in touch and in good relations with your local produce monger is vital to stay current with what’s hot, what’s abundant, and what’s cheap.

The Main Course

Seasonal vegetables may not take center stage for entrees, but there may not be a better strategy in balancing the expensive protein cost to make things affordable. Celery root puree, when in season, can be cheaper than even potatoes (and far more interesting). Cauliflower and Brussel’s sprouts are flying out of the walk-ins locally. Zucchini is basically grown as efficiently as dandelions; ever made them into tots? Amazing. Remember to keep it interesting!

When it comes to proteins, chefs will have nightmares about making affordable menus with quality cuts, especially with beef. Time to put the lipstick on the steer! Sourcing lesser-known cuts of meat and serving them at a value price might be just what is needed. Skirt steak is somewhat of a prized cut amongst chefs in terms of flavor, and highly under-utilized. Flat irons, flanks and shanks may not sound as sexy and prove to be a little tougher but still have the perception of value to not only young adults but budget-travelers, as well. Chicken is still very affordable, even when cage-free and local (and your mark-up can be GREAT!) Pork is gaining popularity with its lean cuts, but don’t turn your nose up to braising and shredding with Boston Butt or shank. They provide great flavor, lower menu price and still great food cost percentage.

The great part about engineering a menu for the mid-week millennial business traveler is that same menu can provide a lot of revenue for your weekend family stay-over, as well. Families with teens are considering the expense of traveling more than ever and giving those groups affordable but flavorful menu options that parents won’t shy away from (it rains on vacations, sometimes) and keeping those families in your outlet will show instant dividends.

Let’s not take the responsibility away from the front of house staff to be able to sell these sometimes “odd” ingredients to the guest. Following these procedures means nothing if your team can’t make the ingredients sound appealing to the guest that raises an eyebrow at the chicory salad. While the millennial guests will likely do a quick search of the lesser-known ingredient, its far more impactful to have a great recommendation from an actual speaking service industry professional. The always-important recommendation and assurance that they will LOVE what they ordered can never be expressed off a tablet screen.

This may be an unprecedented time in the industry where there is this much impact from a specific age group. Many food and beverage outlet managers and directors are already making time to engineer their menu using these strategies, especially the non-specific-themed restaurants. The establishments that do are reaping the benefits of retaining in-house guests on a budget while maintain their COGS at a level that keeps execs off our backs. But even the steakhouse that is broiling up the finest bone-in ribeye can find ways to attract the budget customer. (Albeit, a slightly larger budget). Make time! It will show in the end. We as department heads have an obligation to our properties to maximize our best available revenue asset; our guests. And a growing number of our guests is the Millennial professional. You simply cannot afford to ignore it.

By: Jeffrey Coyle, Director Food & Beverage, DoubleTree Denver Tech Center, Stonebridge Companies