2010 February: Great Starts

Appetizers come first in the meal, but do they come last on your priority list? They shouldn’t, because if you put as much attention into your starters as you do your main dishes, your bottom line can benefit. “Appetizers are an opportunity for us operators to potentially increase the check average per person,” says Don Bellis, CEO and co-founder of The Rock Wood Fired Pizza chain in Washington. Scott Anthony, a pizza industry marketing expert and owner of Fox’s Pizza Den in Punxatawney, Pennsylvania, adds that the profi t margin on appetizers is usually a little more than that on pizza, making them even more attractive to savvy operators.

Appetizers are more than deep-fried (or woodfire baked) money-makers — they can also serve as a way to test out products for the main menu, and they help create a positive experience for diners who are looking to treat themselves. Want to get started with starters, or revamp your appetizer selection? We asked pizza restaurant owners who are doing it right to share their tips.

How many appetizers should you offer?
The answer is whatever works for you: The Rock Wood Fired Pizza has 10 on the menu; Panhandler Pizza in New Braunfels, Texas, has four; and Villa Fresh Italian Kitchen restaurants, which are in several states, have five. Villa Enterprises’ director of marketing, John Drinkard, says: “We like to have 18 percent of our entire menu mix be appetizers. It’s a little bit industry standard, and a little bit of us knowing our concepts and our customers.” For the operators we interviewed, the number of appetizers fluctuates, with some new starters being introduced and less popular ones dropping off the menu. “If it’s less than three percent of your sales, get rid of it unless it’s something that’s really versatile that’s going to be in other menu items,” advises Anthony.

Appetizers range from expected stand-bys (think mozzarella sticks) to unique taste sensations (think calamari). According to Anthony, there are some basic appetizers that customers at most pizzerias simply expect, such as garlic bread or breadsticks, French fries and cheesesticks. “Beyond that, you want to have things that customers are looking for, and this has to be balanced with how much dine-in you really have,” he adds.

Take into consideration your restaurant’s “food personality” when drawing up an appetizer menu; for example, because The Rock Wood Fired Pizza is a full-service restaurant that offers burgers, chicken, and other dishes as well as pizza, the appetizer menu is varied: Cajun popcorn shrimp, French fries and cheese fries, garlic-mozzarella bread, chipotle wings and mini-calzones. And Bellis likes to give dishes a unique spin, so The Rock’s wings are cast-iron baked as opposed to deep fried, and diners can get the garlic mozzarella bread with brown sugar sprinkled on it for what Bellis calls “a maple sugar-like sweetness.” As another example, an upscale pizzeria might skip the mozzarella sticks and instead serve up two other popular starters: calamari and toasted ravioli.

You can get double duty out of your appetizers if you choose ingredients that you already use in other dishes. For example, “If you’re going to have kids’ meals, then chicken tenders and mozzarella sticks would be excellent appetizers to add to your menu because those are really big for kids’ meals,” says Anthony. Steve Swindell, co-owner of Panhandler Pizza, agrees. “We’ve attempted to limit our appetizers to products that are using the same product mix (as in main dishes), meaning still using pizza dough, and still using products that go on our normal pizzas,” he says. For example, his restaurant offers garlic cheese sticks that are made from a pizza dough round topped with garlic butter and mozzarella cheese –– all ingredients used in main-dish pizzas –– and cut into strips. Serving double-duty appetizers is about more than stretching ingredients you already use –– it’s also smart because if your customers love what’s on the main menu, they’re likely to love appetizers made out of those same foods as well.

It makes more sense to get crazy with an appetizer than to try mad scientist experiments with more costly main dishes. “The appetizer venue allows us the opportunity to literally try products,” says Swindell. “It’s almost like our research and development department.” For example, Swindell noticed that many diners dip their pizza in ranch dressing, so he’s rolling out an appetizer pizza that has ranch instead of marinara sauce — with a container of marinara on the side for dipping. If the concoction is a hit, Swindell can add it to the menu as a regular pizza.

In the end, keep in mind that when people dine out, they don’t just want food. They want a total experience, including things they can’t (or don’t want to) whip up in their own kitchens. Appetizers help to create that experience. Offer a delectable selection of starters that matches your restaurant’s personality and your customers’ wants, and watch your check average rise. ?

Make it a meal deal

Many pizza restaurant operators have noticed that in today’s mushy economy, diners are trying to cut costs by deep-sixing appetizers. To combat this trend, John Drinkard, director of marketing for Villa Enterprises Management, suggests putting together combo platters that give the diner a good deal. “We’ve been doing a decent amount of them and getting a nice reaction because two or three people can jump in on them,” he says. “They might get a nine-dollar sampler split between three people, so it’s only three bucks. It’s not like it was a year or two ago, when nobody had any issue with getting a six-dollar appetizer.”

Linda Formichelli is a freelance writer living in Concord, New Hampshire. She covers a wide variety of topics and has authored several books.