Monday, July 27, 2009

Cutback Steakhouse

With less customer traffic, higher food costs, and little flexibility to raise the prices on their menus, restaurants have to cut back somehow, but they don’t want to be obvious about it, for fear of losing more customers. In some cases, they seem to have done studies to find out how much smaller they can make the food before people notice the change. That’s about 10 percent for food that has a definite shape, like cake and pie, and possibly 20 percent where the shape is different every time, like a leafy salad. These are examples of specific changes at restaurants within the past year. Most of these are changes I’ve seen personally.

  1. Smaller steaks. As hard as it is to shrink the item that gives a restaurant its name, a steakhouse has no choice. Prices can’t go up near the bottom of a steakhouse menu, so the steaks are a third smaller than before. Where there used to be just one selection under 16 ounces, now there are several to choose from.
  2. Salads that are mostly lettuce. The restaurant’s house salad still has as much lettuce as before, but the other ingredients have been cut back by half. On another salad, the bacon bits have disappeared completely.
  3. Greasy salad dressing. The least expensive ingredients in a salad dressing are water, salt, oil, vinegar, sugar, and gum, and restaurant salad dressings these days are not much more than that, containing only traces of the “featured” ingredients.
  4. No bread on the salad bar. An American diner may have cut back in the wrong place, as taking the rolls off the salad bar seems to have cost it more than 10 percent of its customers. Along with the bread, the carrots and cucumbers are also gone.
  5. Less light at dinner. A restaurant that sees its biggest crowds at lunch is saving money by turning on only half the lights in the dinner hour and leaving the candles on the table unlit. A disadvantage of this is that customers who arrive after dark might think the place looks closed.
  6. Meat loaf with beef fat but no beef. Beef used to be the featured ingredient in the meat loaf, but now the hint of beef comes from beef fat and barley, and I doubt most customers notice the difference.
  7. Smaller plates. At a Chinese buffet, the new plates are prettier — and about 8 millimeters smaller.
  8. More vegetables. The same buffet is taking its vegetable ingredients more seriously. It is now easy to tell the pineapple chicken from the chicken with broccoli.
  9. Less expensive toppings. The new featured pizzas added to the menu at a pizza place emphasize less expensive toppings such as broccoli and onions.
  10. No mints. The bowl of after-dinner mints that used to sit near the cash register at a restaurant is gone.

If restaurant menus seem a little more alike now, it’s because a few more of the items on the menu are coming out of the freezer, instead of being cooked in the kitchen. The restaurant suppliers are being squeezed along with the restaurants, and have had to find ways to meet the restaurants’ price points.