Building a Great Seasonal Menu
There are a few reasons that, every once in a while, caterers must change their menus. Although it’s fine to keep the tried-and-true favorites – your signature dishes and the all-time crowd pleasers – the trick to being a popular caterer is to know how to go with the flow, how to stay ahead of the trends and, perhaps most importantly, how to create menus that are seasonal and timely.
Why Go Seasonal
Although it may be easier for caterers and restauranteurs to fall back on their greatest hits, a seasonal menu shows clients that you care about offering a special dining experience. Surveys have shown that this approach will boost business and have a positive impact on your bottom line – for several reasons. First, seasonal foods are usually less expensive than out-of-season fruits because of their abundance. Second, using seasonal ingredients can be a money-saving proposition; this is because using out-of-season fruits and vegetables leads to waste, as the lack of freshness of out-of-season ingredients increases the chance of decay, decomposition, and unusable products.
In addition, seasonal menus say something about your relationship with your clients. When you create a new seasonal menu, it shows that you care enough to take the time to introduce novel ideas, and that you are knowledgeable enough about seasonal resources to create an innovative menu a few times a year. Produce consumed during its season is fresher and richer in nutrients, and therefore using these ingredients reflects well on your business. When you create an interesting seasonal menu, you’re telling your clients that your menus are unique and that they can expect something special from your kitchen. If you present seasonal menus correctly, your customers will enjoy fresh new flavors, and limited-time specials that showcase the uniqueness of your business.
Planning Your Seasonal Menu
Whenever you revamp your menu, it means investing extra time and effort. It’s easier to go through the motions and fall back on those old familiar dishes that you can prepare almost in your sleep; easier, perhaps, but not necessarily the best thing for your business. To come up with new ideas for a seasonal menu, you will need to plan ahead and research the items – particularly the produce – that will come into season in the coming months. By April or May, you should start preparing and brainstorming for the summer menu offerings, and by the time July rolls around you should already be thinking about autumn dishes.
Ask Your Vendors
Consult with vendors, colleagues, and staff members about what will and won’t work. Experienced vendors are perhaps the best source of information, as they can help you come up with novel ideas based on their knowledge of the market and of your business. More importantly, a trusted vendor can help you cost out new seasonal items. Ahead of the season, when the vendor already knows what the new produce is likely to cost, you will be able to start pricing and figuring out what you can afford. If you get a price that seems high, even from a vendor with whom you’ve worked with successfully in the past, you should call around for a better price. If you do find a better deal on seasonal produce, then you should go back to your own vendor and negotiate a better deal, since you both understand that the vendor-client relationship is not based on price alone. You will both want to try to keep the relationship going since a vendor whom you trust, and with whom you’ve had an ongoing relationship, is quite crucial, as is a valued client.
Share the Experience
When it comes to creating a seasonal menu – which could start off as a hit-or-miss proposition – it’s a good idea to bounce ideas off the other members of your kitchen staff. Although the business is yours and you may be head chef, when you introduce new seasonal dishes you should seek opinions from trusted and knowledgeable staff members with discerning taste. Not every dish will work, and the opinions of those whose skills and taste buds you trust, will direct you on the path of what works (and what doesn’t work), what to keep and what needs to be improved. Through collaborative trial and error, you can tweak the menu until you get it just right.
Get an Education
If you’re planning your very first seasonal menu, research is the key ingredient. Consult with the farms and suppliers around you to find out which ingredients will be at peak quality in your area and when. This is important for your business’s budget, as seasonal ingredients can yield a better profit margin than trying to get hold of out-of-season vegetables and other ingredients that will cost you more, and not be as fresh by the time they make it to you.
Once you understand what ingredients will be garden-fresh and abundant in the months ahead, feel free to use them in more than one menu item. This way you’ll be able to offer a variety of dishes without having to order as many different ingredients. When certain fruits – say, strawberries or mango – are in season, you can include them in entrees, salads and desserts, in ways that say “creativity” to your clients and “efficiency” to you.
Introducing Seasonal Items to Clients
When the challenging work is behind you, and you’ve researched the upcoming bounty; created and tested interesting and novel menu items; and priced the new dishes correctly, it’s time for the fun part: adding the new items to the menu in a way that will make them irresistible to your clients. When you write the descriptions of your new seasonal dishes, in addition to promoting the fresh and seasonal ingredients, focus on the unique flavors and the special textures you have created.
However, even when you are rolling out your new menu, it’s a good idea to keep some of the old, reliable items on tap. This is especially true when you are hosting repeat customers who are less interested in trying something new than in simply ordering what they know worked in the past. For those customers who prefer to rely on what they’ve already experienced, rather than take a chance with something new, don’t force the new seasonal items on them. Instead, try to interest them in mixing in a few new seasonal dishes along with the old familiar ones. This way, you’ll have a chance to introduce some of your new and creative seasonal dishes to your guests, while keeping your loyal customer base happy with tried-and-true favorites.
Seasonal Menus Can Work For You
A seasonal menu is a great way to showcase your kitchen, and a fabulous way to create a buzz for your business. It may be tricky at first, but it gets easier with time and practice. Seasonal foods are the best way to keep things interesting while incorporating the freshest ingredients and flexing your culinary muscles. If you’re still not sure about whether to try a seasonal menu, keep in mind that it will allow your clients and guests to discover new flavors and ingredients at their peak. A seasonal menu is good for everyone, as it keeps things fresh and exciting for you, your staff, and your customers.