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Building Appetizer and Dessert Sales

It’s not uncommon for a person to be able to tell when a stranger, a waiter perhaps, is trying to get them to buy something they don’t want, and to recoil when it happens. The practice of mindless “up selling” is so endemic in much of our industry that it has become a caricature. “Would you like fries with that?” delivered deadpan, with no eye contact or thought in a quick service restaurant is bad enough, but at least there it makes a little sense. If there are only a half dozen items on the menu, there’s not a bad chance that a guest might very well want the most popular side dish to accompany his meal. And what’s the harm in reminding them, just in case they forgot? When the same level of enthusiasm and forethought is applied in other types of restaurants, it probably won’t translate well. We all know that we can count on most diners to order at least one course, whether it is an entrée or an appetizer, as their meal. It’s less of a given that they will augment that selection with a first course or dessert. The May 2012 Issue of Restaurant Start-up & Growth talks about some strategies that could help increase and build appetizer and dessert sales.

One of the most important parts of forming a strategy to increase appetizer and dessert sales is to understand how our customers perceive our waiters. We must train our wait staff to be knowledgeable about the menu, and to come across as engaged, competent professionals who care about each guest’s experience while being served by them. Regular tastings of each menu item for your wait staff, with part of the culinary team included, should be part of your restaurant’s routine. A member of the kitchen staff or a manager should describe the dishes, how they are made and what makes them special. Any ammunition that your chef can offer the waiters that can be used as a sales pitch should be brought up at these meetings. If the beef is hormone free and raised in the adjacent county, if the sauce takes 2 days to make, if the pasta special is just the way his grandmother made it, now is the time to mention it. Common concerns that some customers will have should be addressed at these tastings. If a certain dish has a high fat content, or contains pork, shellfish or peanuts, for example, your waiters should be aware of it. They should also know which menu items would work as good alternatives. If the fried shrimp appetizer is not going to work for a particular guest, maybe the poached salmon will. If it makes sense in your restaurant, this would also be the perfect time to have your beverage manager explain his or her choices, for the perfect wine or beer pairing for some of the dishes. Over the course of several such meetings, both by-the-bottle and by-the-glass selections should be covered; as well as specialty drinks.

As easy as it is to get the wait staff enthused about the savory dishes they have to offer their guests, it is usually even easier to get them excited about the desserts, and enthusiasm is really a big part of the game. In addition to your waiters simply tasting each dessert on your menu, it’s even better if whoever makes the desserts can describe part of the process involved to the servers. Whether it’s using a big propane torch on the crème brûlée, making sponge cake from scratch for the tiramisù or making the raspberry sauce from whole, fresh raspberries, these interesting tidbits, and valuable sales tools, shouldn’t be kept secret from the people who can use them more than anyone. Even if the most exciting thing that happens in the kitchen is taking a particular dessert out of a box, if it’s honestly the best example of it the waiter’s ever had, he’ll be able to recommend it with real sincerity. Another reason not to neglect desserts as part of the tasting rotation is that, by the end of a meal, your waiters have built up their maximum rapport and trust with their guests and, hopefully, will have somewhat increased powers of persuasion.

Building a good rapport with their guests is one of the most important things every waiter needs to accomplish to succeed. This applies to and encompasses the waiters’ multiple roles as hosts, technicians and salesmen. Although we are currently concentrating on the last role, they are all interrelated, and, in fact, successful salesmanship is impossible without previously laying the groundwork of the first two. Emphasize to your wait staff the importance of making their guests feel at home, respected and welcome from the moment of their first interaction. This doesn’t mean insisting that each waiter initially approaches his or her tables with a chirpy, “Hi, I’m Biff and I’ll be making sure that you have a FABULOUS dinner tonight!” In fact, a one-size fits all approach will fail more often than it succeeds. Train your waiters to really pay attention to their customers, listen carefully to everything they say, notice how they interact with each other, do their best to figure out what they want from their dining experience and then act accordingly. The only constants should be an overall demeanor of courtesy, attention and being ever mindful of the fact that they are there to serve their guests in whatever way will make them the happiest

Before a waiter can intelligently try to sell a customer a specific appetizer or drink, they need to get a feel for just why that customer came in, and what will satisfy his or her particular needs. With a little experience and a lot of attention, a waiter will be able to notice patterns they’ve seen go by before. Are they picking up on clues that the guests at a particular table are foodies who might be interested in trying a wide sampling of the chef’s offerings? Describing a number of appetizers, which the waiter can enthusiastically recommend from personal experience, and making the suggestion that they can be split or shared family-style would be worth a try in this case. Offering a round of appropriate wines by the glass that would show the food off in its best light might close the deal. On the other hand, making the same pitch to a table that has made it clear that they have only 40 minutes before they have to leave to make it to a show would only make the waiter look like he’s not quite with the program, and probably can’t be trusted with anything else either. If a waiter can actually figure out without being told that a table is a little stressed about their itinerary, and point out that a certain dish will take 30 minutes to make and should be avoided under the circumstances, he’ll look like a hero. It should always be remembered that the best way to insure that each waiter is attentive to the needs of their guests and treats them with all the respect they deserve, is for that same courtesy to be extended to everyone who works at the restaurant, from the steward to the owner, in both directions.

If the first half of increasing revenue through selling more appetizers and desserts is taking the steps to have an enthusiastic, well-trained and well-informed sales force in place, the second half is making sure you are giving that sales force something attractive and desirable to sell. Besides the obvious reasons for making sure that your appetizers and desserts are something special, there’s another factor at play. The primacy effect and recency effect are two terms that psychologists use to describe the phenomenon that, in essence, an individual is most likely to have the clearest memory of the first and last things they experience during a particular event. This means that a typical guest will probably remember the appetizer and dessert they had in your restaurant more than they will the entrée. If you want your guests to leave your restaurant with great memories of the experience, your appetizers and desserts are the place to make your mark.

The first step in writing the appetizer and dessert portions of your menu is to offer a wide enough variety of items so that everyone will be able to find something that tickles their fancy. As much as possible, working within the framework of your concept, appetizers should include selections containing shellfish, fish, poultry, red meat and a vegetarian option. Plated appetizers, soups and salads should all make an appearance. As should a variety of cooking styles: poached items, fried foods, sautéed foods, etc. might all have a place on your menu. Mix it up, with some items hot and some chilled. Also be open to including at least some appetizers that are easy to share among everyone at a table. One of the best ways to make sure that your appetizers hit the right chord with your guests is to change them with the seasons. Conversely, not making seasonal adjustments might explain why they just aren’t selling. The beef-barley soup that you can’t make enough of in February probably won’t be as popular in August. Your chilled cantaloupe-mint soup has its season, too. While some of the above suggestions may not make sense on your menu, the basic concepts and ideas behind them can be used as groundwork for your restaurant.

One factor that applies to appetizers in just about any setting is that they should look at least as good, if not better, than anything else you serve. It’s the first thing guests see and, as the saying goes, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. If you have cooks who’s knife skills will allow them to delicately fan an avocado on a plate, brunoise a red bell pepper, or very thinly slice a duck breast, this might be the place to let them shine. Colorful sauces such as a red pepper coulis made out of the scraps from the production of the brunoise pepper might be a welcome addition to the right first course plate. In general, any extra attention paid to presentation on your appetizer plates is probably not a wasted effort. Of course, no matter how good an appetizer plate looks, if it is not well seasoned, served at the wrong temperature, or not cooked properly, the fashion points you gain in presentation won’t save the day.

Many of the suggestions made about appetizers also apply to desserts. A wide variety will help your guests always find what they are in the mood for. Depending on your concept, options should include chocolate, fruits, custard, baked items, warm items, cold items, etc. Guests love “home-made” desserts if for no other reason, ironically, than they can’t get them at home. Even if you don’t have a dedicated pastry chef, there are plenty of desserts that can be done in-house by most cooks, with a good recipe and a little direction. “Chef Desserts” rely less on the specialized techniques and experience of pastry chefs and more on skills already mastered by many cooks. If your kitchen can produce a good Béarnaise sauce, then they can make many popular custard-based desserts like bread puddings, Crème Brûlée or the world’s best chocolate pudding. If you offer Chardonnay-poached salmon, then you can offer poached pears. Dessert sauces such as various fruit coulis can be very easy to prepare, and are less expensive and taste better than many you can buy. They are also a good way to use fruit that may not be fresh enough to serve whole. Even adding just one or two desserts made in-house will give your dessert menu more credibility than it would otherwise have. If your kitchen is already maxed out and adding even one more thing would do more harm than good, just make sure that you choose wisely from the many excellent products available to purchase, ready-to-serve. Also don’t forget, dessert is the last thing your guests will see, so make it pretty. A sprig of mint, three raspberries, a spoon of whipped-cream or a streak of sauce from a squeeze bottle can work wonders.

In many situations, a separate dessert menu can be an effective sales tool for your waiters. If you are going to go through the trouble and expense of producing one, be sure that it is attractive, fits the style of your restaurant and feels good to the touch. If it makes sense in your restaurant, include your most popular after dinner drinks on the dessert menu. If your desserts are big enough to split, and your waiters point this out, you’ll probably make more money selling more desserts than it cost you to increase the portion size. A heartfelt recommendation from a waiter to end their meal on a high note, especially with a sample dessert tray in tow, might be all that is needed to encourage a guest to add one more course to their meal. Remember that it is all about our first and last impression, and if you can get your waiters to pay attention to what your guest really want and leverage this to make the right recommendations then you could see an increase in your sales.

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