2009 February: Going for a Dip

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2009 February: Going for a DipPizzerias across America have traditionally offered very few creative appetizers on their menus, preferring instead to focus on the pizza itself. In an effort to boost revenues and remain competitive, however, operators say that by offering more appetizers, utilizing ingredients they have on hand, they are able to offer variety without sacrifi cing food cost. Over the last several years, the “chip and dip” concept has emerged. Taking lead from other successful franchise food chains across the country, many operators have introduced the ever-popular spinach artichoke dip to their menus.

So what is it that makes spinach artichoke dip one of America’s most popular appetizers? The “chip and dip” concept is nothing new. Serving dips at parties has been a staple for ages and using breads or tortillas for dipping actually goes back for centuries. Mediterranean countries have always enjoyed dipping crusty breads into extra virgin olive oil. The Swiss dipped little cubes of hearty, dense bread into wine-soaked Swiss cheese and Mexican cultures served fried tortilla chips with salsa, all of which are now common fare in this country.

The standard recipe for spinach artichoke dip combines either fresh or frozen spinach with artichoke hearts, creams and cheeses. There are many variations on the theme, however, which make this hearty dish a universal favorite that requires virtually no marketing.

Natasha O’Hara, owner of Dino’s Pizza in North Mankoto, Minnesota, says this offering is one of her top selling appetizers and offers customers another menu item that can be shared with a group of people. “Most everyone enjoys spending time socially with their friends and family, and this type of food can easily be shared over a good conversation,” she says. “It’s comfort food; it’s the new chips and salsa. We save on cost by serving it on fl atbread made from pizza dough.”

Operators have differing opinions on which ingredients have a better food cost. O’Hara feels that using fresh spinach is more profi table. Others, however, prefer to use frozen chopped spinach, as they feel it is easier and stretches farther without sacrifi cing any fl avor.

Steven Greenberg, owner of Steve’s Wood Fired Pizza in Boca Raton, Florida, says he manages to keep his food cost at 13- to 15-percent using frozen chopped spinach. “We make our recipe from scratch,” says Greenberg. “We add artichoke hearts, olive oil, onions, garlic, sour cream, chicken broth, heavy cream, fl our and a variety of cheeses, and serve it with tri-color tortilla chips. We’ve even used it as a sauce on our pizzas, topping it with slices of roasted chicken.”

Even the simplest recipe can become more interesting by serving it with different chips or breads. Operators are using everything from tortilla chips to toasted pita bread, fl atbread and sourdough bread.

Some operators have decided to forego the spinach altogether, incorporating more herbs and cheesy sauces. “We introduced spinach artichoke dip to our menu three years ago, but we wanted to be more innovative, so we changed it to a Basil Artichoke Dip,” says Ryan Fuller, director of training and development for the Glacier Restaurant Group, which operates the MacKenzie River Pizza Company chain in Whitefi sh, Montana.

“We actually lowered our food cost by adding Alfredo sauce and pesto sauce, along with artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers and fresh basil. We serve it with sourdough dipping wedges. Our customers love it!”

Spinach artichoke dip is also a great appetizer to serve using alternative ingredients such as bacon, crabmeat or sun-dried tomatoes that will jazz up the standard recipe. You can also adjust the caloric intake, as desired. ?

Denise K. Sypesteyn is an award-winning editor and freelance writer specializing in the food and travel industries. She is also the former owner of a successful pizzeria and Southwestern restaurant in New Orleans, Louisiana