How do we conquer the resistance to menu items from customers unaccustomed to culinary experimentation?
When Prentice Berge of Restaurant Magnus in Madison, Wisconsin was living in California, he saw chilled soups featured everywhere in the summer. Yet now that he is in Madison, he notices quite a bit of resistance from customers when putting a chilled soup on the menu. And Berge isn´t alone. And neither is chilled soup.
As creatures of habit, customers tend to stay within their same food category day after day. And Berge brings to light a very common dilemma that every owner and server faces- how do we get the customer to expand their horizons and their taste buds.
I was faced with this quandary on a daily basis while operating restaurants in Minnesota during the early 1990´s. Culinary experimentation was hardly as popular as ice fishing in the middle of a 35 degree below zero cold spell. My first experience with customer resistance was to stuffed artichokes. When operating The Crocus Hill Market I introduced softball sized chokes, stuffed with breadcrumbs and garlic to the public in my prepared food case. When a customer ordered one, asked that it be put in a to-go container and proceeded to pop the entire leaf in her mouth and begin to chew I knew I was in for trouble and she was in for a trip to St. Joseph´s Mercy Hospital. I rapidly convinced my wife to give the nice lady a course on Artichoke etiquette before she experienced the choke part of the dish.
Education is frequently the answer to over come resistance. And, at times that can be difficult water to tread. And, costly. I am a proponent of sampling items that people are unfamiliar with. A small cup of chilled soup on Wednesday night, as a marketing tool is a wonderful way to get people to try the soup and advertise the eatery at the same time.
This especially works during those dog days of August in the mid west when the temp hits 95 only to be topped by humidity. Have an "It´s so hot out I wish my soup were chilled night." It might be fun and get people thinking, also, send samples of new food items to a few tables in your dining room and let people know that you are sampling. Get their email addresses and when you actually put the item on the menu, send them an email that their "new favorite dish" is available as a menu special.
Most people are willing to try Gazpacho and enjoy it during a hot summer day. However, mention a chilled Strawberry soup and one shutters. Give them a sample and sales will increase.
This will also assist your servers in the sale of items that are unknown to the palate.
One spring evening in May, 1993, I was walking through the dining room of Chez Foley, my Minnesota Faux French Bistro Wayzata. Situated on Minnesota´s Gold Coast, Lake Minnetonka, the restaurant boasted a clientele comprised of well traveled palates.
On this particular evening we had introduced New Zealand Purple Potatoes to the dining sect of the western suburbs. When I approached the table of a well known food family icon to make sure their meal was above par, the matriarch of the clan mentioned that everything was wonderful, with the exception of the potatoes, "which were so rotten they had turned blue."
I immediately explained that the potatoes, which had been cleared from the table as they had finished their meal without mentioning the calamity, were New Zealand Purples and had just been introduced to the Minneapolis market by my chef, David Wetzel. I apologized profusely and sent dessert to the table.
After the dinner rush I told Wetzel to get the purple potatoes over to The Cottagewood Store and put them in the prepared food case as a sample. We had over shot the market.
The following evening I was working the rope when Mrs. Pillsbury arrived with three other guests.
"Good evening, John. We´re here to try those new purple potatoes."
Although the ride to short ride to Cottagewood to get those luscious, sweet Purples was longer than ever before, the experimentation paid off. Mrs. Pillsbury enjoyed the experience and the potatoes became a regular menu item, sliced, layered with fresh basil and drizzled with olive oil and sea salt.
So when you debate on whether or not to introduce something to a menu, don´t forget our culinary obligation is to not only entertain, but to educate. And, if we can do that tastefully, than it´s been a good day.