Friday, 29th September, 2017

Small Plates and Sides

Easy to incorporate and reactive to consumer eating and dining trends, side plates offer operators a great chance to increase the average spend from each of their customers. In fact, sides may be the saving grace of the kitchen; food wastage can be kept to a minimum and seasonality is much more achievable.

With competition in the industry ramping up, operators are realising the growth opportunity available in the side dish.  Consumers react well to variety and choice and a simple burger can be taken into gourmet territory with a side of bacon fries or mozzarella sticks. Additionally while operators can charge only so much for a main, discerning consumers are likely to be tempted by an array of premium ‘add-on’ options to improve their dine-in or takeaway experience.

Sides play a huge part in additional sales at fast-casual restaurant TGI Fridays. Terry McDowell, Head Chef and Concept Development Manager explains; “Friday’s has always put a huge focus on our appetizers, sides, and smaller plates, ensuring they are stars of the show as much as our main meals. Since day one – both in the States and in the UK – it is something which we have been well-known for and which have been a massive hit with our guests.”

“In recent years, we have really pushed the boundaries in this area by introducing innovative dishes that our guests love.”

One of the market leaders in regards to their small plates offerings, Friday’s offer a range of 22 different appetizers to their customers for £9.99, with the option to order a side and then re-order the same choice as many times as they like.  For £3 more their ‘Endless Option’ allows customers to choose a different appetiser every time, endlessly. TGI’s have reinvented their appetiser menus and now customers have the choice of having a lot of everything, as opposed to a bit of one thing.

Terry says; “We genuinely believe that we are setting the most exciting trend in the sector currently by being the only restaurant brand in the country to offer ‘endless appetisers’ across all of our UK locations.”

“The traditional three course format, especially in the casual dining sector, has all but gone. People’s dining habits have changed and ‘courses’ have become much more fluid. These guests want quick bites, delivered quickly, but with oodles of flavour.”

UK households are now spending more than ever before on food out of home.  Research from The Office for National Statistics released earlier this year revealed that UK households are spending more than £45 per week on dining out, an increase of £1.80 on 2016 figures.  The latest Menu Trends Survey from foodservice data and insight experts Horizon found that the proportion of side orders now offered has increased to 18.2% compared with 17.1% the year before.  Interestingly, they also saw a jump of 60% in the number of new snack dishes on menus. 

Horizons’ analyst Nicola Knight, commented; “This partly reflects the more flexible nature of dining out, driven by consumers who want to eat what they want, when they want. But it also shows that operators are up-selling additional side dishes and snacks to customers rather than increasing the price of their main courses.”

“Overall the cost of eating out has risen at a slower rate than inflation over the past year, so it seems that operators do not seem able to increase their prices to reflect additional costs such as the National Living Wage and the possibility of supply costs increasing post-Brexit.”


Mohammed Essa, General Manager UK & Ireland, Aviko.  Darragh Gilhawley, Head of Business Development UK, Big Al’s Foodservice.  Nigel O’Donnell, Managing Director, Meadow Vale Foods.  Terry McDowell, Head Chef and Concept Development Manager, TGI Fridays.

What is behind the rise in popularity of small plates and side orders?

“Small plates and side orders are great at tempting in customers to spend a little extra on top of their main meal, with many customers deciding they would rather go for a side order over a desert,” explains Nigel O’Donnell, Managing Director of Meadow Vale Foods.

“they are perfect for the food-to-go and QSR markets as they are both quick and easy to make, meaning all the busy lunch goers can quickly pop into their favourite restaurant and make it back to work within the time constraint.”

“Restaurants are now realising their importance and therefore are giving them a larger section on the menu.  They are appealing to those with a smaller appetite as well as someone who would like a selection of different sides.” 

In recent years, TGI Friday’s have really pushed the boundaries in this area by introducing innovative dishes.  For example, the Pulled Pork Sundae, an appetizer served in a glass usually reserved for desserts, or the Chick-Cone – made with sweet waffle cones, Cajun chicken, fresh ‘Pico de Gallo’, spicy guacamole, Monterey Jack cheese, and finally topped with chillies.

“One of the key reasons we feel small plates, appetizers, and sides are proving popular is because of the social aspect – which is just why people come to Fridays,” explains Terry.  “When main meals arrive, people will often tend to focus on their food, but small plates offer the opportunity to be much more social, allowing guests to share, try a bit of everything, and talk about what they are enjoying the most.”

“They also allow guests to try new items without having to ‘commit’ to it as their main meal. So, it encourages guests to be more adventurous and try things they may otherwise not.”

Darragh Gilhawley, Head of Business Development UK, Big Al’s Foodservice, says; “In recent years snack foods and sharing plates have been turned into meals in their own right.”

“Dining occasions are becoming less defined, with consumers increasingly eating up to five smaller meals per day – which offers a significant opportunity for QSR operators to tap into the snack foods market and boost food sales across all day-parts.” 

“Personalisation is also hugely important to consumers,” adds Mohammed Essa, General Manager UK & Ireland, Aviko.  “Offering a range of side orders for customers to choose from allows operators to meet this demand and add value to any menu.”

Aviko for example offer a range of fries and hand-held appetisers that are easy to cook – their ease of preparation means they do not require skilled staff to prepare them – and offer the added benefits of nil wastage and perfect portion control. Plus, they allow operators to easily cater for vegetarian and gluten-free diets.

Mohammed says; “The good news for QSR operators is that offering a range of small plates or side orders is simple to do. Quality pre-cooked products that are quick and easy to prepare can help operators profit from hungry customers, and keep the tills ringing.”

What are the latest trends in terms of small plate and side order dishes?

“According to data from The NPD Group, over the last two quarters chicken has overtaken pork as the most ordered protein in the U.K. when eating out of home,” begins Nigel. 

“Protein visits increased as the foodservice industry continued to grow in Q1 2017, visits were up +1.0 percent overall, meanwhile QSRs were up an encouraging 2.1%.  Meadow Vale’s Homestyle range includes ideal menu options for side plates that will appeal to customers who desire a quick and tasty dining solution.”

“The range allow diners to customise their dish with condiments, toppings and sides of their choice.  For example, Meadow Vales’ Homestyle Southern Fried Chicken Strips can be served in baskets as a sharing dish, or as part of a ‘pick’n’mix’  platter for customers looking to share lighter bites.”

“Particularly on trend are snacks that deliver a filling, tasty meal option without the time and hassle of cooking, nor the expense of eating out,” adds Darragh.  “Big Al’s Italian Pizza Twists hit the spot for customers in search of a quick snack to keep hunger at bay while they get stuck into increasingly busy lifestyles.”

“These Italian Pizza Twists cook easily in less than three minutes from frozen and come in their own hand-held sleeve packaging, making them an ideal snack. Available in two flavours – margherita and pepperoni, Big Al’s hand-held Pizza Twists provide a great addition to an on-the-go and snacking menu.”

“Trends surrounding consumers’ demand for more sophisticated spice blends cannot be ignored. The popularity of Nando’s for example, has seen consumers looking for a little extra heat on their plate. Mohammed elaborates; “56% of people want to see more spicy options out-of-home, and 44% are willing to pay more for them.”

“Our new Piri-Piri Wedges – skin-on jacket potato wedges feature a generous sprinkling of Piri-Piri seasoning – are the perfect side to help operators make the most of this demand.  Ready from frozen in as little as three minutes, Aviko’s Piri-Piri Wedges offer a speedy option to enhance a host of favourites, from sizzling steaks and sticky ribs to chargrilled vegetables and chicken kebabs, without putting any additional strain on already busy kitchens. As well as a side to a main course, the wedges work well as part of a sharing platter, a snack or a takeaway option, giving operators scope to add a spicy kick to the entire menu.”

At TGI Fridays Terry has witnessed guest demand increase for more innovative sides which are more than just an add-on, but instead a key part of the meal experience; one that offers additional bold flavours and elements to the meal.

He says; “When it comes to flavour trends, it is all about making flavours sing with fresher tastes, and achieving the right balance between sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. We are raising the flavour profile of our dishes as Brits become increasingly adventurous in their tastes, thanks to a bigger exposure to world foods.”
“Californian lightness, jerk seasoning, and stronger levels of spice will all continue to be a focus at Fridays.  Our Scorpion Hot Wings, for example, offer a huge hot and spicy kick – more so than we would have felt comfortable introducing to guests, say, ten years ago. However, our job is to ensure these flavours are accessible to our Friday’s fans.”

What is the best way for food-to-go and quick service restaurants to encourage add-on sales through small plate and side order dishes?

“Fridays is an experiential brand,” begins Terry.  “Both in terms of the in-store experience and the new flavours we are introducing to our fans. Small plates encourage our guests to explore these new flavours and experience more. Plus guests can upgrade to sweet potato fries for just 99p more, or loaded fries for an extra £2. Both options have been really popular upgrade choices across our restaurants with guests.”

“Giving customers the freedom to choose their favourite options and offer a ‘Pick ‘n’ Mix’ list is a great way to create custom-made sharing platters for a fixed price,” says Mohammed.  “This will help operators tap into the growing appetite for interactive, build-your-own meals.”

“Aviko’s Appetizers are versatile and will bring variation and value to any offering. They are perfect for sharing, and feature Tex Mex as well as Mediterranean-inspired flavours to spice up menus as well as profits.”

Nigel adds; “Eye-catching deals on small plates and sides is often key to their success.  Offering a discount when buying multiple side orders gives the customer the go-ahead to indulge in multiple items rather than making the tough decision of which one to go for.”

“Our Speciality Products for example, which include our Halal approved, quick cook from frozen Roasted Chicken Breast Kebabs, and our popular Chicken Tikka Skewers, can both be incorporated easily into a menu allowing operators to offer ‘2 for the price of 3 menu deals’ for example.”

“Promotions allowing the customer to customise their meal is also becoming more and more apparent; it is never a good idea to limit a customer to one or two sides with their meal but to instead offer up the entire menu, charging a slightly inflated price for more luxurious items.” 

What does the future hold in terms of side plate and side order dishes?

“Insight shows that diners, especially millennials, are looking to be stimulated by their food choices, and an immersive dining experience is just as important as the food on offer itself,” says Darragh. 

“The current trend for food customisation is a quick and easy way for operators to heighten each and every dining experience. Allowing customers to create their dish, their way is an easy trend for operators to tap into – especially in terms of small plates and sharing foods.

“Side orders and small plates are not going anywhere; they have firmly cemented a position on restaurants menus and are the perfect solution for generating additional revenue,” explains Nigel.
“Always looking to stand out from the crowd growing on favourites, such as chicken wings, with new and exciting flavours or changing the flavours with the season. Hot and spicy is a growing favourite and Meadow Vale provides a wide range of hot and spicy offerings in their new Homestyle range.”

“Small plates are a great way to experiment with new ideas due to their low cost nature and they can be really helpful in identifying your customers’ preferred tastes. If something is not getting the sales needed or expected they can easily be adapted or completely removed from the menu.”

“Healthier eating is going to continue to be a massive trend, and any restaurant which isn’t on the ball when it comes to this is going to lose out,” adds Terry. “We therefore put a lot of effort into ensuring that vegetarian and vegan guests – and those that just want something healthier or light – don’t miss the big flavour experience.”