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Objects on Your Plate May Be Smaller Than They Appear

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 13, 2008

SWEDESBORO, N.J. -- In the last year, a few dozen chefs have come here to the test kitchen of Rastelli Foods, a wholesaler based near Philadelphia, in search of tips about how to trim portions -- preferably in ways that diners won't notice.

Like many in this business, Rastelli has developed an impressive bag of tricks, and one recent morning staff consultant John Roehm is sharing a few of them with the owner of Conley Ward's Steakhouse, a restaurant in Wilmington, Del. Roehm focuses on the chops, which will soon be downsized in subtle ways, but he's got an idea about the shrimp cocktail, too.

"What you do is skewer the shrimp before you boil them," Roehm says. "It straightens them out so that when you serve them, they look bigger. Now you can buy a smaller, less expensive shrimp."

Pinched by soaring food costs on the one hand and a recession-fearing public on the other, the restaurant industry is getting crafty. Chefs are tinkering with recipes, swapping out expensive ingredients for cheaper ones. Managers are using behavioral science research to rejigger menus -- putting high-profit items in the top right-hand corner, for instance, where diners tend to look first.

And many restaurants are putting the great American portion -- a monstrosity by the standards of international cuisine -- on a diet, as surreptitiously as possible. Lots of restaurants are buying smaller plates to make the reduced servings look just as large, or lighter silverware so that even if there are fewer bites per serving, each bite feels heavier than usual on the fork. A la carte portions of high-priced dishes -- steaks, for example -- are getting pared back and surrounded by low-cost starches and vegetables.

"We've advised a lot of clients to switch from an eight-ounce filet to two three-ounce filets," says Rastelli Foods owner Ray Rastelli, who sells to 6,000 restaurants in the New Jersey, New York and Delaware area. "They reduce their cost by 25 percent and they change the plate presentation, adding some strategically placed accouterments. It looks like more food and it actually costs less."

Some restaurants aren't bothering with the sleight of hand. At Lucky Devils in Hollywood, the toasted pecan shake recently went from 18 ounces to 12 ounces, though the price didn't budge. At the Plumsted Grill in Cream Ridge, N.J., the filet mignon recently went from a 10-ounce to an eight-ounce portion.

"We also bought more small plates," says Plumsted co-owner Stacy Maul. "Our chefs were using these large platters for dishes like the chicken marsala, and they felt like it didn't look right unless the whole plate was covered. You give them smaller plates, they cook less food."

Fret not, gluttons. There is little risk that portion shrinkage will cause anyone to lose weight anytime soon. That's because the point isn't to slim us down or lower our cholesterol. It's to save money in a business that many owners and consultants think is already in recession. A recent National Restaurant Association survey found that 46 percent of members reported declines in traffic in February over the previous month, not to mention "a record-low reading in restaurant operators' outlook and expectations." Smart owners, of course, have always carefully watched their costs, but when every bill comes with a "gasoline-price surcharge" and fewer people are walking through the door, it's hocus-pocus time.

The risk is that patrons will notice and get annoyed. (One Lucky Devils regular recently fumed online that the restaurant had "done something unforgivable. They have toyed with the toasted pecan shake.") A lot of restaurants prefer to charge more rather than fiddle with the food, on the theory that customers think of menu prices the same way that drivers think of a gallon of gas -- they hate to see it get more expensive, but don't blame the gas station when it does.

But eating out is optional in a way that driving isn't, and there's only so much that a typical customer is willing to pay for a plate of fried calamari. And though risky, the financial upside to smaller portions is greater for a restaurant than you might think.

Take that 10-ounce filet mignon. At $20 per pound, it costs $1.25 per ounce. Start buying eight-ounce filets from your supplier instead and you spend $2.50 less per dish. A restaurant that sells a modest 100 filets a week will save $13,000 a year on that item alone.

Move enough entrees, and even pennies start to matter. Two months ago, the Lobster House in Cape May, N.J., changed the recipe for a flounder dish, getting rid of a vodka brandy sauce that cost 70 cents per serving in favor of an assortment of vegetables with garlic seasoning, which cost about a third as much.

"We're the 14th-largest-grossing restaurant in the country," says John Thompson, a Lobster House purchasing agent. "Changes like that add up."

Thompson is milling around the Atlantic City Convention Center, where two weeks ago hundreds of food vendors showed off their products to several thousand restaurateurs. A walking New Orleans jazz band tried to lighten the mood with music, but everyone on the buy side looked miserable.

Only one guy in the room said he was busier than ever: Chris Mentzer, a menu re-engineering and recipe development specialist with US Foodservice, the company that put together the event. He does house calls for restaurants in distress, and he's currently booked three months in advance.

"I've been so busy in the last year," he says, "we hired two extra people."

Mentzer and his colleagues show up with a scale and a laptop and weigh all the ingredients for every item on the menu. Then they start crunching numbers. If the food cost for any offering -- the raw materials, before the price of labor and other overhead is added on -- is more than 32 percent of the price on the menu, there's a problem.

Fortunately, Mentzer has a lot of solutions.

"The first thing I tell them is to round up every price that ends with 95 cents to 99 cents. You've got an item $10.95, raise it to $10.99. If it's $7.75, make it $7.79. All the chains have done it -- Applebee's, Chili's, all of them. It's just four cents and your customers won't notice, but that could easily mean $5,000 to $15,000 a year for the restaurant."

There's a science to where on the menu you display that price, too, he says. Take a typical two-column menu: The description of the food is on the left, and the price is an inch or two from the description, on the right. Bad idea, says Mentzer. Get rid of the second column, he recommends, and put the price at the end of the sentence that describes the dish.

"You want people to read the price after they've read the description," he explains, "not before."

Now that you've nestled together price and description, you've got to think about where on the menu to locate each dish. Mentzer has studies that track where the eye travels when it reads a menu, and part of his presentation to clients is a menu divided into sections: the starlets (top right, the place for items that net the most money), the plow horses (top left, ideal for dishes that are higher than average in popularity and lower than average contributors to the bottom line), the dogs (bottom left, lower than average popularity, lower than average profits) and so on.

"The eye goes first to the starlets and it doesn't like to spend a lot of time with the dogs," he says. "I told a guy recently to move his pastas -- which are really high-margin -- from the dogs to the all-stars, and there was a 30 percent jump in sales."

Another tactic that's gaining favor: Spell out the price instead of using a number, because it's easier to part with thirty-four dollars than $34. Hypothetically, anyway.

All of these concepts, Mentzer says, have been around for years, but more restaurateurs than ever are putting them to use. It's not just that the prices of flour, corn, cream and other ingredients have shot up. More people who dine out are watching their dollars -- buying two appetizers, or splitting an entree. The buzzword in the restaurant business today is "value," which usually means finding ways to entice diners to spend more by giving them what sounds like a bargain.

This, say restaurant consultants, is why nearly all the mid-priced dining chains now peddle a build-your-own-sampler deal. At Applebee's, it's called "Ultimate Trios" and for about $13.99 -- the price varies in different parts of the country -- you get to choose three appetizer-size portions from a list of items like buffalo wings and mini-cheeseburgers. (Bennigan's has a similar deal for $10.99, billed as an "economical way to stuff your face.") The point is to yield larger checks -- and as long as the restaurant keeps its food cost below roughly 32 percent, it's all gravy.

Catering to value diners is what brought Conley Ward's Steakhouse to Rastelli Foods last week. The restaurant, for years among the most expensive in Delaware, is about to rebrand itself from top to bottom, with a new name (CW Harborside), a more casual interior (bye-bye, tablecloths) and a menu with more dinner entrees in the low $30s range and fewer in the mid-$40s range.

"I've got people coming for birthdays and anniversaries," says co-owner John Conley. "That's twice a year. I need them twice a month."

Both the steaks and the prices are getting smaller. The 14-ounce New York strip filet that cost $36 without any side dishes will become a 12-ounce strip that costs $34 and comes with potato and vegetables. Roehm, the Rastelli consultant, grills a couple of the chops to see what they'll look like once they're out of the kitchen.

"The thickness is different," Conley says, looking at a medium-rare 18-ounce T-bone, which will take the place of the 20-ounce now on the menu. "But you still get good plate coverage."

By the time he leaves, he has the outline for a whole new restaurant, which is basically his old restaurant if it turned sideways and sucked in its gut. And took off the tie. It's a scaled-back place for an era of scaling back. Conley is optimistic enough, though he jokes on the way out the door that he might simply be in the wrong business.

"If we were smart," he says, "we'd raze the place and start growing corn."

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