March 10, 2014 |

Think outside the breadstick

By Jeffrey Freehof

Spinach and artichoke dip pita chipsUse your oven for oven-baked bottom-line boosts

Let’s talk bottom line for a moment. It’s on all of our minds. We all want to increase our profits or get closer to making a profit and we are relentless in finding ways to bring in new customers to meet those financial goals. In the past, I’ve shared with you that sometimes we focus solely on finding new customers in a variety of ways, including offering some kind of discount offer. Let’s focus instead on tapping into our existing customer base we already have to increase their check average. That’s actually a whole lot easier because you’re dealing with a captive audience. Let’s focus on upselling appetizers!

Chances are you’re probably already tight on space. Adding fryers can be costly and take up valuable kitchen real estate. I’ll assume you’ve got the breadsticks down pretty good by now, so let’s look at some innovative baked appetizer ideas that will simply tease your customers just enough to open their wallets a little wider to taste your creative genius.

If you just don’t have that inner chef in you, then talk to your food sales representative and ask to see some samples of prepared appetizers that can be baked off instead of fried. There are so many different things that you can bake these days, like chicken wings that you can glaze or coat with a huge variety of coatings. There are oven-able cheesesticks, stuffed jalapeño peppers and a whole host of other appealing appetizers. As a chef, I’m not here to tell you to buy pre-made things and run them through your oven however!

Making your own appetizers is noticeably cheaper than purchasing pre-made versions, and they can set you apart from your competition. Let’s start with the beautiful artichoke. You know an artichoke heart doesn’t really have much of its own flavor to brag about. It really takes on the flavor of whatever you cook it in. Here are two great baked artichoke appetizers:

Baked Artichoke, March 2014Baked Artichoke Hearts

5 ounces of quartered artichoke hearts
2 ounces garlic butter
1 ounce Alfredo
1½ ounces seasoned butter breadcrumbs
½ ounce Parmesan cheese

Simply melt the garlic butter, add the Alfredo sauce and toss in the artichoke hearts. Put it in an appropriate-sized baking dish and top with the seasoned buttered crumbs and Parmesan. Bake it in your oven for about 5 to 6 minutes until crispy.

Artichoke & Spinach Dip

Spinach and artichoke dip pita chipsNow you may be thinking that everybody sells this stuff. Heck, you can even buy it in a jar in the chip aisle. Have no fear! I have the very best recipe for this popular dip and your customers will rave about it.

1½ pounds of cream cheese (softened)
15 ounces of artichoke hearts roughly chopped
5 ounces of fresh spinach (sauté with salt) chopped
1 tablespoon granulated garlic
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
2/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Yes, it’s really that simple. Just blend it all up and place 6 ounces of this creamy concoction in the proper baking casserole dish and top with 2 ounces shredded pizza cheese and bake until bubbly. This is best served with some baked pita chips.

Crab Stuffed mushrooms, appetizerStuffed Clams or Mushroom Caps

Baked Stuffed Clams are real nice, and they are slightly upscale appetizers that most likely aren’t being served by your competitors. If you have some little neck clams, shuck them and chop the clams, then make this wonderful clam stuffing and fill it back into the shell and bake them.

1 pound of chopped clams
6 cloves of chopped garlic
1 small minced onion
1 stick butter
1 cup of clam juice
Salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon Old Bay spice or Cajun spice
1 ½ cups Italian breadcrumbs
¼ cup freshly chopped parsley
½ cup Parmesan cheese

Sauté onions and garlic in the butter. Add your chopped clams and juice and all seasoning.
Bring to a simmer and add breadcrumbs.

You can stuff your clams and then bake them to order. You may substitute the clamshell with mushroom caps if you’d like to. Garnish this appetizer with fresh lemon.

For one of the easiest –– and bestselling ideas –– consider wrapping anything in bacon and bake it. Bacon has been the “it” ingredient for several years. Ideas? Consider wrapping scallops, shrimp, chunks of chicken breast (marinated in Cajun spice), chicken livers with a slice of water chestnut and a touch of soy sauce (this is called Rumaki) … These would all make great baked appetizers.

Baked appetizers are the perfect way to generate new sales with old customers. The added benefit is that your existing customer base will be energized and enthused about your new offerings, and they will generate more buzz for you! Your oven is already on. You’ve got to pay the bill whether your oven is full or empty, so why not generate some extra sales with the heat you’re already paying for!

Jeffrey Freehof  owns The Garlic Clove in Evans, Georgia. He is a frequent contributor to Pizza Today and a speaker at International Pizza Expo.