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Appetizers: Get smarter with your starters and boost your sales

If you raised your appetizer sales by only 10% this year, imagine how that would affect your bottom line. Here are six ways to do it.



 

Consumers dine out for a number of reasons—they may be celebrating special occasions, looking to try something new or simply don’t feel like cooking at home. In all of these scenarios, they expect you and your staff to provide an experience that ensures they come away with a delicious meal. For your guests, appetizers—or starters, as some refer to them—are the beginning of a full and satisfying dining experience. For pizzeria operators, they are key to increasing check averages and, ultimately, boosting your bottom line. Have you calculated how much revenue is hiding in your appetizers? If you could persuade an additional 10% of your customer base to order appetizers, what would that do for your bottom line?

Incorporating a few simple tactics to increase appetizer sales, while simultaneously monitoring your appetizer food cost, can dramatically increase your sales. “We try to stay at about 25% food cost on appetizers,” says Scot Cosentino, owner of Goodfella’s Pizza (goodfellaspizza.com), in Staten Island, New York. “It’s important to raise the average transaction per person; just selling pizza won’t do.”
After talking to several leading industry operators, we came up with these six strategies for selling more appetizers:

“If every waitstaff employee can add an appetizer to the bill, it adds up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales and can make the difference between the success and failure of a business.”
—Scott Cosentino, Goodfella’s Pizza

Sliders and onion rings are both popular starters or sides that can be served in a pizzeria setting.

 

Hit ’Em While They’re Hungry

As soon as your customers sit down in your pizzeria, they’re probably already hungry. A great way to sell appetizers is for servers to remind patrons that they can put in an order of breadsticks, wings, etc. for them right away and have it out in a few minutes while they wait for their pizza. Most of those who are hungry will welcome the suggestion to start eating sooner rather than later.

And the more choices you have on the menu, the better your chances of upselling those customers who are a little picky about their starters. Offering a range of options and prices will sell far more appetizers than the alternative. Someone who would not normally order appetizers may change his mind when he sees breadsticks for $2 or a house-made dip with chips. “Our chips and salsa is our most popular appetizer,” says Bill Jacobs, who owns Chicago’s Piece Brewery & Pub (piecechicago.com). “We make everything fresh and created our apps to complement our pizzas. We don’t do breadsticks, which can be redundant sometimes.”

A simple but delicious focaccia is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Photo by Kara Hoffman.

 

Keep It Simple

When you’re trying to keep costs down and profits up, think simple. “We love simple appetizers,” Cosentino says. “Garlic bread in our wood-fired oven is simple and fantastic. We use a roasted garlic spread that has olive oil, butter, chopped garlic and grated cheese. Just pull a small dough ball longways and press down hard with your fingertips throughout the dough. Cover with the spread and cook it hot and fast. Cut it up and cover with a parsley and grated cheese. It’s nothing but profit and made fresh to order!”

Cosentino adds that he tries not to bring in any extra items to avoid wasted inventory. The fried ravioli, bruschetta, and spinach and artichoke dip are all easy-to-make items with great margins, he notes. “Our Mozzarella ’n Carrozza (mozzarella between two slices of bread, breaded and lightly fried, served with marinara) is a bestseller and, again, simple.”

 

Signage and Sampling

One of the easiest ways to get appetizers in front of customers is to use eye-catching visuals. This can be accomplished via direct-mail fliers, photos on social media, tent cards on tabletops, and sampling in the store. How much would it cost to cut up an order of homemade mozzarella sticks and walk around the dining room with bite-size samples? Do you think you’d sell an order or two afterward?

In addition to customer sampling, your servers also need to sample the appetizers in order to recommend them to guests. “During preshift meetings, invite employees to try the appetizers,” says restaurant expert witness and consultant Howard Cannon of Birmingham, Alabama-based Restaurant Operations Institute. “This is an easy way to let servers know the appetizers by sight and taste.”

 

Be Suggestive, Not Aggressive

While you never want to aggressively push food on customers, a certain amount of suggestion from the server is expected, since servers should know the menu better than customers. You can start out by greeting the customer with a genuine recommendation, such as, “Can I get you started with some of our homemade garlic knots? I just tried them earlier, and they’re delicious!”

“We are in the business of selling,” Cosentino says. “If your staff doesn’t know that, then you’d better retrain them. If every waitstaff employee can add an appetizer to the bill, it adds up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales and can make the difference between the success and failure of a business.”

“Servers should recommend an appetizer that features a few different options on one plate to be shared. From there, the customer can order the most mouth-pleasing sample.”
—Tony Saldutto, TETI Bakery

 

Incentivize Your Staff

While many operators avoid running sales contests—after all, sales is part of your employees’ job descriptions—others have found success in offering perks to those who make an effort to sell more appetizers. Travis Davis, a manager at Pizza Junction (pizzajunctionhillsboro.com) in Hillsboro, Missouri, says that the pizzeria has started holding selling competitions for the servers. “We give the winners a small gift certificate for our store as a reward,” Davis says. “So far, it’s been very successful.”

Cannon, on the other hand, suggests a different approach: Think of upselling appetizers as a way of enhancing your guests’ overall experience at your restaurant. “Instead of making it a contest or upsell, think of it as giving the customer the opportunity to taste the appetizer,” he says. “By suggesting an appetizer, you’re giving the customer a better experience and the chance to taste a great product they may not have known about otherwise.”

 

Create a Snack Menu

Snacking in restaurants, complete with happy hour and late-night menus, has become more popular over the past few years. If your pizzeria has a bar—or even if it doesn’t—you can easily create a separate menu for those coming in for a light snack. Utilize this special menu during your regular hours, or open an hour earlier or close an hour later. The idea is to have a menu dedicated to your appetizers, showcasing each one, maybe even pairing them with stellar craft brews, craft sodas or signature cocktails. The profit potential is endless.

Start big or start small, but start somewhere. Your appetizers may be the most underutilized part of your menu now, but they don’t have to be. Set a goal for increasing appetizer sales and watch your revenue grow!

Liz Barrett is PMQ’s editor-at-large.

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