Boost the customer experience—and your bottom line—with these 5 tips for creating better finger foods.

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.

Encourage Customization

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.”

“We turn traditional options into signature items with different shakes, seasonings and dips. These don’t add much as far as food costs or complexity in the kitchen, but they’re more individualized for guests.”
—Mike Thom, CraftWorks Restaurants & Breweries

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!

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.”

Spur Sampling

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.”

Tracy Morin is PMQ’s senior copy editor.