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Ah, autumn. The nights cool down, the light jackets come on, and we can finally turn off the air conditioning. In your restaurant, the citrus and bright colors of summer ease into the warm, comforting flavors of fall. Think apples, beets, artichokes, quinces, pears, and beets.
As the seasons change, so can your food. Introducing a fall menu does more than just swap out rosé for pinot noir. It also elevates your brand, both by aligning you with wholesome locavore sensibilities and by giving you a stamp of in-the-moment awareness. A seasonal menu can boost your image and your bottom line.
To find out how, we spoke with PJ Calapa, the owner and head chef of Scampi, a restaurant in New York City’s Flatiron District.
Today’s diners demand fresh ingredients. According to the 2019 State of the Restaurant Industry Report, restaurant-goers are clamoring for more “vegetable-forward” dishes and hyper-locally sourced ingredients.
This preference also drives the decision about where to eat. According to a 2019 report from the Restaurant Industry Association, 51% of consumers say that the availability of environmentally friendly food would make them choose one restaurant over another. Environmentally conscious diners can feel comfortable knowing that their meal has a lower carbon footprint versus one they can get elsewhere.
While not every restaurant has a garden to grow its own herbs and vegetables, local food shows your diners that you’ve got your eye on the values that are important to them.
For Calapa, serving locally sourced seafood and produce aligns with his mission to serve authentic Southern Italian cuisine.
“Scampi is inspired by Italian cuisine that only serves food in season,” Calapa said.
Calapa sources his seasonal vegetables from New York City’s Union Square Greenmarket to take advantage of the local harvest. Scampi customers can expect dishes like grilled beets and brussels sprouts with ricotta salata alongside their favorite standby items.
Sourcing locally is also a great way to show customers that you have relationships with local farmers or food suppliers. In the RIA report, 58% of consumers say the primary reason they like locally-sourced food in restaurants is that it supports farms and food producers in their community.
Seasonal menus can also give your loyal customers FOMO. This is a good thing. By promoting only-in-season dishes on social media and in your newsletters (with beautiful photos, of course), your existing customers will feel compelled to come in and taste them before they’re gone.
Scampi’s social media team uses Instagram to promote new and forward-thinking dishes and cocktails to its 12,700+ followers.
“We pride ourselves on having regulars. We always want them to feel comfortable coming back to Scampi,” said Calapa. “Our customers are always intrigued by new dishes on the menu and are always open to trying them.”
In addition to lively, colorful photos of patrons enjoying his signature mafaldini (#MafaldiniMonday), Calapa credits Instagram as being a great way to promote seasonal changes to the menu.
Customers love stories. If you source from a local vendor, consider asking him or her to appear in a video or photo that you can share across your social platforms. A short interview or a series of photos with captions can go a long way to buttress your restaurant’s ethos and standards. By explaining why you chose this particular farmer as the source for your produce, you’re also telling them that you only accept the best for your customers.
If that farmer can talk more about why they are also enjoying a fruitful relationship with your restaurant, that’s even better.
All of this can go a long way to promote new items while adding a personal touch. Customers will learn not only where their food is coming from, but who is actually growing it. It’s a great way to show the effort and thoughtfulness that goes into each dish, seasonal or not.
A seasonal menu can also help keep your staff engaged and excited about coming to work.
“I think it inspires all staff, front of house and back of house, when we create new dishes,” said Calapa. “Every time we come up with a new dish, we make sure that the entire staff is able to try it so they can be the most helpful to the guests about that particular item.”
It’s also a way to highlight your team’s expertise and excitement about a seasonal dish. Photos or a short video of the team explaining, cooking, and tasting a seasonal dish can be a mouthwatering experience for a customer scrolling on his or her phone.
Consider asking your team to share their favorite autumn traditions to create a connection to your customers. It’s a great way for diners to learn more about your team and their personalities.
So what are Calapa’s favorite flavors for fall?
“I do love a good roasted butternut squash with sage and brown butter,” he said. “All of those ingredients remind me of Thanksgiving and family time and staying warm.”