How to Keep Your Menu Fresh Each Season

April 24, 2019 08:43 PM

From educating yourself on local produce to listening to marketplace trends, learn the ways you can master the seasonal menu.


Balance your menu with both consistent dishes that keep your guests coming back, and new items that reflect the changing seasons. (Photo: stockyimages/Shutterstock)


By Jaime Bender


To everything there is a season, as the old proverb goes. In the restaurant world, seasons can signal a time for change, a time to let customers know you’re flexible and willing to deviate from the norm. But they can also alienate loyal guests and blur your brand, if the change isn’t implemented correctly. Here are a few things to keep in mind when updating your menu to reflect the changing seasons (hint: don’t go overboard!).


Give yourself plenty of time to plan.


Surely you know very well how beneficial advance planning can be to the survival and success of your restaurant. In this case, always be looking to the season ahead of you for the best seasonal items to add. In July, look to the fall. In May, start looking at summer items. Some restaurants even plan a year out. Decide the best plan that works for you, and stick to it.


Create a balance that’s right for you.


A key part of restaurant ownership is being constantly attuned to – and carefully balancing – three things: your product mix, your customers’ feedback and marketplace trends. “It takes planning but is an important part of keeping the brand relevant with their consumer,” said Jay Bandy, president of Goliath Consulting Group. “It gives the consumer another reason to come to the restaurant.”


To review your product mix, conduct a postmortem of each component at the end of each season: first, take note of which dishes worked best and for what time periods. Then, look back at customer reviews and feedback on Yelp, Facebook and other pages. Finally, research marketplace trends on sites like Fooddive, Mintel and Nation’s Restaurant News. Tie this into your seasonal planning (above).


Know the stories behind the products.


Jay Bandy of Goliath Consulting

This is where it pays to have a healthy relationship with your distributors, Bandy said. “The first place I look are the distributors that focus on local farmers and artisan producers,” he said. This is where you can source the most local ingredients and know the story behind the products.”


Anytime you can find local sources for your ingredients, it’s wise to do so. To learn exactly how to do that, look to the farms and suppliers in your area to find ingredients at the peak of perfection. As winter approaches, for example, consider adding vegetables like broccoli, kale and cabbage to your menu. Conversely, if you live in a landlocked state, it might not be wise to add lobster or clams to your seasonal menu.


You might have to pare down your menu.


It’s important to remember, especially if you’re a small operation, that menus need not be overhauled each season to make a significant impact. To avoid overtaxing your kitchen and your budget, consider scaling back some of your “regulars” – the items you plan to serve indefinitely – in order to make ample space for new, seasonal items.


“Pare the menu down to fewer ‘full-time’ menu items that don't change,” Bandy advised.


Also, keep your format in mind when deciding to change menu items. “Chef-driven concepts will change over half their menu throughout the seasons. Typically 15 to 25% of a menu in full-service changes. That gets lower for fast casual and even less for quick service,” Bandy said.


Tie your social media posts to your seasonal dishes.


Ramps are a cousin of the onion and are often mistaken for leeks. (Photo: David Kay/Shutterstock)


Staying on top of seasonal trends must be a priority if you want your restaurant to stay relevant. To grow your audience – typically your millennial base – you’ll want to tie some of your new, seasonal features to your social media posts.


For example: If you think a “ramp” is the thing you use to exit a highway, think again. You’ll want to incorporate ramps – the vegetable that resembles a green onion – to your menu, and you’ll want your millennial audience to hear it first.


“They'll come in droves when a restaurant announces [new items] through Instagram tied to a dish,” Bandy said.


Involve your staff.


Don’t forget about your waitstaff when you’re making menu changes; after all, they’re the ones who interact with your guests the most. Ask for their input: What would they like to see you add to the menu? What do they think is lacking?


Also, when you do add new dishes, remember to allow your staff time to get acquainted with them, so that they can better describe them to customers.


Not only does such communication help you run your business more efficiently, it also makes your staff feel energized and recommitted to the restaurant.


Flex your creative muscles.


Aside from the financial and marketing benefits to having a seasonal menu, don’t forget to have fun and get creative with new and exciting flavors. It’s why you opened a restaurant in the first place, right?


“Seasonal menus provide a fantastic way for restaurants to offer the freshest of ingredients while flexing their creativity and demonstrating that they are up to speed with the fast-changing world of food service,” said Jorge Cespedes, a research and development chef with Food IQ. “By changing menus several times a year, you can allow customers to try, explore and discover all the options the land has to offer.”