Boost the customer experience—and your bottom line—with these 5 tips for creating better finger foods.
Experts explain how to transform ho-hum finger foods into must-have lip-smackers.
When you look at your appetizer menu, do you take pride in its wide array of house specialties that customers can’t find at competing pizzerias? Or have you fallen into the trap of listing the same ol’ mozzarella sticks, French fries, calamari and onion rings that everyone offers?
If you find that your finger foods selection lacks creativity, fear not—there are easy ways to take these standards and jazz them up, often without adding significantly to your food costs. Follow these five suggestions to take your finger foods from ho-hum to must-have.
Old Chicago Pizza and Taproom encourages bundling on its Tavern Bites menu by offering a price break with the purchase of a trio.
Old Chicago Pizza and Taproom (oldchicagopizza.com), with nearly 100 locations nationwide, recently expanded its menu to include a range of Crispy Tavern Bites—primed to pair perfectly with its wide selection of beers, from light lagers to full-bodied stouts. The chain cross-utilizes ingredients to maximize profits and minimize waste. For example, Flavored Fries and Flavored Kettle Chips can be tossed with a selection of seasonings (Ranch, BBQ and Jamaican Jerk) and served with sauces (Creamy Buffalo, Beer Cheese, and Sour Cream With Roasted Garlic and Onions). “Our Crispy Tavern Bites offer the opportunity to create distinctive fare with a craft component,” explains Jason Murphy, brand manager for Old Chicago. “Offering a twist on the familiar delivers a full experience and enhances our beer selection with sharable, snackable options.”
By jazzing up standards with add-ons such as sauces and rubs, Old Chicago gives customers more control over their experience through customization. “We turn traditional options into signature items with different shakes, seasonings and dips,” says Mike Thom, senior director of culinary for CraftWorks Restaurants & Breweries, which owns three restaurant brands, including Old Chicago. “These don’t add much as far as food costs or complexity in the kitchen, but they’re more individualized for guests.”
Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza & Grill offers a bevy of globally inspired flavors on its tapas menu, including Mediterranean dips served with flatbread. Photo provided by Sammy's.
Seek Ethnic Inspiration
You may focus on Italian foods at your pizzeria, but it’s also helpful to look abroad for finger food inspiration. For example, the Italian Nachos appetizer is a best seller at Old Chicago, featuring housemade pasta chips topped with a cheese blend and pizza toppings like pepperoni, served with marinara. Meanwhile, Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza & Grill (sammyspizza.com), with 17 locations in California and Nevada, offers up a world of flavors on its globally inspired tapas menu: Italian (Parmesan Crusted Artichokes with creamy herb dressing); Asian (Wok’d Sesame Shisito Peppers); and Mediterranean (Baba Ghanoush, served with herbed flatbread for dipping).
Ethnic-inspired ideas help boost creativity without maxing out your budget. You can roll out your regular dough thinly to wrap around pizza toppings and deep-fry it, egg roll-style, or skewer up chicken and bathe in an Indian-inspired spice mixture or yogurt-based marinade. Additionally, try a Mediterranean take on fried cheese (and garner a lot of customer attention) by offering saganaki, a Greek cheese often set ablaze tableside. Or you can experiment with modern takes on Spanish-style tapas (try bacon-wrapped dates, or patatas bravas, fried potatoes served with tomato sauce or aioli). “Ethnic foods are more widely accepted now, and offering these flavors in finger foods allow customers to try something new without a large financial commitment,” Thom notes. “Millennials especially are likely to try them—and tell their friends.”
Don’t Fear the Flavor
Today, both kids and adults are more apt to try new flavors and ingredients, Thom believes. “The fast-casual world really stretched the envelope on flavor with avant-garde dressings and ingredients,” he notes. “The days of kids wanting plain, bland food are going away, and their tastes are expanding.” When Craftworks was testing new mac and cheese flavors, for example, market research found that kids preferred the more flavorful options.
And, while many young kids may still not gravitate toward overly spicy items, Millennials are keen to test their taste buds with the hottest recipes (literally). Time magazine proclaimed in 2014 that spicy was “the most profitable new trend in food,” pointing to fast-food chains like Subway cashing in on buzz-worthy ingredients including chipotle and sriracha. If you don’t offer anything that brings the heat, you’re missing out—kick it up a notch!
Need more inspiration for jazzing up your standard finger foods? Check out these inventive ideas from pizzerias across the country:
Pizza Pub (www.pizzapubashland.com) in Ashland, Wisconsin, takes a unique twist on traditional potato skins with its Taco Tators—skins filled with taco meat and cheese, baked, then served with traditional taco fixings (lettuce, tomato, onion, sour cream and salsa).
Pepperoni’s (eatpepperonis.com), with locations in Black Mountain and Asheville, North Carolina, satisfies a sweet tooth with Funnel Cake Fries, topped with powdered sugar and served with icing. Meanwhile, its bone-in or boneless wings can be customized with both wet (Stupid Hot, Mild, Teriyaki, BBQ, Bourbon, Garlic Parmesan) and dry rub (Kickin’ Chicken, Jerk, Rosemary Garlic, Mesquite and Lemon Pepper) flavors.
With nine locations in Idaho and Utah, Smoky Mountain Pizza (smokymountainpizza.com) rethinks the typical fried cheese appetizer with Brie Kisses—brie cheese wrapped in puff pastry, baked and served with boysenberry-jalapeño jam. Crispy Chicken Thai Rolls combine seasoned chicken, snow peas, bean sprouts, red onions and red peppers (served with a spicy peanut dipping sauce), while Garlic Parmesan Fries feature a spicy sidekick: chipotle dipping sauce.
Offer Package Deals
Smaller portions with appealing price points allow customers to try a variety of your small bites—and you can also encourage bundling through smart pricing strategies or by offering sampler platters. “Individual tastes at one table can be so widespread, but when you offer smaller bites, people don’t have to agree on one thing to share—and the lower price points are a great check driver,” Murphy says. “We also encourage customers to pick three with a discount, taking them on a culinary adventure and allowing them to try new things.”
You also may want to mix up your menu with healthier options for customers minding their calories—or at least options that customers perceive as healthier. “Fried snap peas, for example, have a fresh and flavorful perception,” says Mike Shannon, director of marketing for Craftworks. “But we also offer more hearty items, such as mozzarella-stuffed meatballs and crispy ravioli. You have to offer choices.”
After you’ve ramped up your menu of finger foods, don’t forget to encourage trial among both employees and customers. Every employee in your pizzeria—from servers and order takers to managers—should be able to offer suggestions based on their favorite finger foods, so make sure they’ve sampled the menu and offer upsells to every customer. Just as the mega-chains do, if you offer online ordering, make sure a suggestion pops up before each order is finalized: “Would you like to add X to your order?” Or offer special deals on new sharable items to your loyalty club members or e-newsletter recipients, such as $1 off finger foods with the purchase of a pizza. Finally, make sure your presentation offers both eye appeal and practicality. “Fun vessels, like buckets, baskets and paper liners, appeal to both kids and adults,” Thom says. “For this new category—bites, snacks and small plates—it’s important to make the presentation interesting.”
Sundried Tomato Deviled Eggs
Provided by Bella Sun Luci
6 eggs, hard-boiled and peeled
1/4 c. mayonnaise (homemade preferred)
1/4 c. goat cheese
1/4 c. sundried tomatoes in olive oil, finely diced and drained
1 tbsp. chives, finely cut
Slice the eggs in half and reserve whites. Remove yolks. In a bowl, mix yolks, mayonnaise and goat cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste. Continue to mix contents until the desired texture is achieved. Add 1/2 of the tomatoes and 1/2 of the chives while continuing to mix. Place the mixture into a pastry piping bag with 1/2”-diameter star tip. Pipe the filling into the egg whites. Sprinkle the filled eggs with the remaining tomatoes and chives. Makes 12 pieces.
Best Ever Onion Rings
Provided by the National Onion Association
3 large onions (about 9 to 11 oz. each), peeled and trimmed
1 c. flour
1 tsp. paprika
3/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
1 c. nonalcoholic or regular beer
Cut onions crosswise into 1/2” slices and pull apart into rings. (Refrigerate broken or end pieces for other uses.) Combine flour, paprika, salt and pepper in large bowl. Stir in beer, beating with a wire whisk until foam is gone.
Baked version: Toss onion rings in batter. Transfer to a plate, letting excess drip off as you transfer. Heat about 1 tbsp. oil in a 12” nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Place about half the onion rings in a single layer in heated skillet. Cook until browned, turning once, about 1 inutes on each side. Repeat with remaining onions. Transfer to ungreased shallow baking pans or cookie sheets, arranging in single layer. Bake at 425° for 6 minutes or until crisp. Makes 6 servings.
Jazz it up! Add 2 tsp. each of dried thyme, chili powder and ground cumin to batter. After baking or frying, sprinkle rings with additional chili powder, ground cumin or bottled pepper blends, if desired. Serve with a choice of housemade dips, sauces or dressings—think buttermilk ranch, chipotle barbecue, sriracha aioli or curry ketchup.