Pastabilities

The question of how to give sales a shot in the arm is being asked more and more these days. As many of PMQ's experts and contributors have said, one way is to increase your marketing instead of decreasing it. When business is slow, customers need more reminders and incentives to spend their dollars with you. So we agree that marketing is one element to getting sales back on line, but what aspect of your restaurant can you market? A good train of thought here would be to promote whatever it is about your restaurant that makes you different.

Being different means more than just offering the highest quality ingredients or having the friendliest staff that caters to customer's every need. It means more than having the best value or the fact that you deliver where no one else will – it means offering something your competition doesn't. There are many different choices for customers these days; pizza, hamburgers, chicken, Mexican, Chinese and so on. What gives pizza one advantage over these other food choices is delivery. So, there is the first differentiating factor in a customer's decision if they want to dine out. If they want to dine in, they most likely don't want the same thing, so menu selection becomes the second factor. Naturally, price comes into play here at some point. So back to the question, how do you capture, or recapture the shrinking pool of customers who seem to be spending less on restaurant food? Pasta may be the answer, so let's explore the pastabilities.

In a nutshell, pastas offer customers more choices. Pastas can open new opportunities for restaurant owners, such as catering. Pastas are a natural match for pizza and Italian food.

Pastas can be as simple or as complex as the restaurant owner decides to make them, so they are versatile. Pastas can be easy to bundle and create up-sells and also store fairly well.

There are some drawbacks to consider, too. Most pastas require a stove, which means hoods and vents. They also require modifications to cook lines, require kitchen space and someone to prepare and cook them. What may be one of the more important factors is it requires effort to educate and condition customers that you offer more choices than pizza alone. Let's explore the pastabilities a little more to see if this may be what you need to kick-start lagging sales.

Why Consider Adding Pastas
"By adding pastas, I invited my existing pizza customers to become pasta customers too," says Andy Costa, owner of Gina's Pizza and Pastaria. Gina's was featured on the Winter 2003 PMQ cover (http://pmq.com/mag/2003 winter/multiplestores.shtml).

"It's obvious that our customers like Italian food and pastas give them with extra choices. Like Mexican, Chinese and pizza cravings, I believe people have pasta cravings too. Not only does it give individuals more choices, it opens your restaurant up to catering jobs from groups, such as offices. Some may want pizza, some salads and others pasta is a more desirable choice. If you offer more choices, your restaurant moves to the top of the list of choices."

Pasta dishes also create an easy up-sell opportunity. Basic pastas can offer simply sauce, pasta and maybe a little cheese, but like a plain cheese pizza, most people want a little something more added. Some additions can be meatballs, chicken, sausage or vegetables. These are items that you already have on hand. If you want to get a little more exotic, you can offer clams, mussels, calamari or shrimp and get a premium price. Not only can customers add to what's in the pastas, but also you have the opportunity to add to what come with the pasta. Garlic bread or breadsticks can be part of the order or be an add-on item, but salads are a natural pair too. Now you can bundle pennies worth of pasta and sauce with some lettuce and bread and customers will get a relatively large amount of food that offers you a desirable profit margin. For the families, a pizza and pasta bundled dinner can be appealing for that person who doesn't want pizza when everyone else does�and you can deliver it.

According to Ilovepasta.org, "pasta is one of the foods kids most frequently eat at home, according to research conducted by Land O'Lakes. Seventeen percent eat spaghetti while 16 percent eat macaroni and cheese. Statistics from the NPD Group, a custom research group, show that kids eat 62 pounds of pasta each year, more than any other age group." As you can see, pizza isn't the only thing kids love. Pastas can also be good additions to kid's menus. "Consumers enjoy pasta for dinner more than 40 times a year (approximately once a week), with dry pasta as their favorite form, according to Harry Balzer, NPD Group, Chicago, Ill."

According to the American Pasta Report, a survey commissioned by the NPA, among the reasons cited for pasta's increased popularity are its nutritional value, taste and convenience. Eighty-four percent of consumers consider pasta to be a healthy food and an important part of a well-balanced diet. In fact, 77 percent of the 1,003 Americans surveyed said they eat pasta at least once a week, while a third eat it three or more times a week. What's more, consumers who describe themselves as health-conscious are more likely than others to eat pasta three or more times a week. In addition, 44 percent of the health-conscious are eating more pasta today than they were five years ago. As you can see, pasta can be a way to add a dish consumers consider a healthy choice.

What Are Your Choices? Trends and Options
When you think pasta, you may think of spaghetti or lasagna, but there are many other choices. One of the trendier items these days is raviolis. They are being served with red and cream sauces in addition to being fried or baked. Ravioli is also convenient because they come portion controlled. You simply determine how many will go with each order, and that is it. Another popular item is the tri-colored pasta. These are spiral pasta noodles made with spinach and sun-dried tomato. In addition to standard spaghetti, you have stuffed manicotti, penne, rigatoni, ziti and a multitude of others. Many can either be boiled or baked to finish.

"One thing you don't want to do is offer a simple spaghetti," Big Dave says. "If you do, you start to compete with the grocery bag. By this I mean parents can go to the store and buy a 50-cent package of spaghetti and a jar of Ragu and it's hard to compete with that. Mom cooks spaghetti all of the time. If you are going to offer a spaghetti, it has to be great."

Educating Customers,

Marketing and Promoting Pasta
"I had an Italian drive-thru and pick-up restaurant," says John Pontrelli, owner of Pit Stop Pasta in Escondido, California. "We delivered, but people weren't ordering pizza, they were ordering pasta deliveries. We did a poll and had drivers ask why. Nearly everyone said it was because they could get a pizza from anyone, but could get pastas from us – delivered."

With delivery being the thing that really separates pizza from other foods, delivering pasta opens up more possibilities. When Andy Costa of Gina's added pasta to their menu, they started picking up more and more office deliveries for lunch. One of his drivers, who worked the lunch delivery shift, started issuing free lunch coupons to the secretary in offices where she delivered. This not only enticed the secretary to push for Gina's when lunch orders were placed, it started the catering side of their business. Andy attributes most of the success of their catering to offering pastas.

For catering, both Andy and John offer individual pasta orders, but also offer half and full trays for pastas. Both agree that the key to launching a successful pasta menu is educating the customers. They won't order it unless they are aware you offer it. "When we had our first Italian food restaurant, we delivered more pasta than pizza," John said. "We moved from that location into an existing pizzeria I purchased. When we first opened in the second location, we were delivering more pizzas. I guess people still associated us with just pizza. Pizza was so embedded in them, we had to just keep reminding them we are pasta too. The more we advertised and promoted, the more they ordered. Now, it has flipped around again and we are delivering more pasta.

Another thing we discovered is that when we moved from counter service and went to sit-down, we found that there was a higher perceived quality and we could charge more, especially when you do something more than pizza."

Just as with a new pizza, sampling may be the best way to launch a new pasta menu. There are a few ways to do this. One would be to go through your database and identify your best customers. When they order, send a small container of your new item to them to try. Andy also suggests bounce-back coupons. He said they typically use one of three offers. One is a 'buy one, get one free' pasta coupon. The second is a 'buy two pastas and get a free salad' and the last is a 'order one large pizza and either add a pasta for $3' or 'buy one large pizza and get $3 off any pasta'. He also said they have done in-house sampling by giving customers a small portion with dine-in orders.

"You have to be careful with food costs and promotions when adding pasta," Big Dave says. "If you make three dollars on two orders of pasta when you could have sold a pizza and made four dollars, the pasta could cannibalize your pizza sales. But, if you use correct portion controls and keep food costs at about 20 percent, and offer high quality product, you can make good money. Another thing you can do is be slightly different. Everyone has spaghetti, so offer linguini or a colored pasta. Also, let the customers sample it. Get some small containers and some stickers identifying what it is and put them on the lids. Give customers a sample to take home or deliver one."

Big Dave said he offered a pasta buffet one night out of the week. Andy said they surveyed students near their Irvine location and found Thursday nights to be a good night for "All-you-can-eat" pasta night that is quite successful. John is about to launch a "Lotza Pasta" promotion. For $9.99, customers get the pasta, sauce and bread. They can upgrade and pay extra to have meats, seafood or veggies added. One way to consider is offering a pasta menu that is similar to a pizza menu. It starts with the choice of pasta and sauce. Then customers can choose from items like chicken, sausage, shrimp or vegetables at a per-item charge.

For larger catering orders, trays may be a better option. Gina's trays of pastas are the size of a hotel pan, and Andy says this works better than selling catering on a per person rate. His full trays can feed about 20-24 people and he charges $89.95. "It's hard for others to beat you on catering like this," Andy says. "With our rates, it averages about $4 per person and that is hard to beat."

Cooking, Storing and Packaging
"Just like pizza, you can screw pasta up too," says Big Dave. "You can over-cook pasta and it come out too sticky, and over-cooked sauce is bitter. You have to be careful with delivery, too, because no one wants cold noodles."

John says they use the seven-inch, round metal containers with the paper lids. "These seem to lend themselves very well to pastas and deliveries. We were amazed at how well they retained the heat. Another thing we found out is these containers can also be used in the microwave, which makes leftovers easy to take to work or eat later. We had a stamp made and stamp each lid so people see our name when it's delivered and when it's in the refrigerator."

When it comes to sauces, Tom Lehmann, director of bakery assistance with the American Institute of Baking, says it is a requirement to cook pasta sauces.

"Cooking develops the flavor, which is needed more in pasta sauces than pizza sauces," Tom says. "You want simmer the sauces at low heat. You have to be careful not to burn the bottom, which is hard with anything but gas burners or double boilers, and keep it stirred. You can keep it on low heat during the day, but it is best to put the remaining sauce into a steamer tray or catering pan so it has more surface exposure and can cool faster. This helps extend the shelf life. Sauce can hold pretty well in the cooler, but pasta only lasts about three days.

"Cooking pasta can be tricky. Shapes determine the cook time, but you want to cook it to right before al dente if you are reheating it for orders. You want the center of the noodle to be slightly off-color from the opaque, pasty outer layer. Get your water boiling, with maybe a pinch of salt only. When it is at the point I mentioned, turn the heat off and strain it. Don't immediately rinse it, because I think this washed too much of the starch off. Have a pot of ice water ready and plunge the strainer into it to cool the pasta. You can add a little oil to keep it from sticking and portion it out and refrigerate. To heat it up, have a pot of boiling water and put the pasta in long enough to heat it up. Remove from the water and either add you sauce or saute it if that is the type of pasta you are making."

"We cook about three days worth of pasta, spray it with oil, portion it out into Ziploc bags and place it in the cooler," John says. "The bags are dated and we pull them out as needed. We keep a pot of hot water that can be brought to a boil in a hurry and drop the pasta in it for a few seconds to reheat it."

Sauces can start with the same sauce you use on pizza. Simply spice it up with some garlic, onions, basil or crushed tomatoes and simmer until cooked. Alfredo sauce can be made by starting with heavy cream and adding some garlic, pepper and either some Romano or Parmesan cheese and bring to a boil. You simply cook until the desired consistency is reached, but remember it will have to be reheated, so don't overcook it. Alfredo sauce will hold for about two days, or it can be made to order.

Downside and Equipment
If you are thinking of adding pasta to your menu, there are a couple of things to consider. Andy strongly suggests avoiding the cheap pastas. Pasta is already a low-cost item, so spend a little extra and get a top shelf product. Big Dave agrees by pointing out that you are competing with moms everywhere who make spaghetti at home, so it has to be better than average at the very least.

While there are pre-cooked pastas available, if you opt to make your own there are some equipment and operational considerations. First, you need a stove to cook, reheat or saute. With stoves come hood and vent requirements. In addition, open flames can cause some changes to your insurance policy. If you do add hoods and vents, be sure to check with your insurance agent about possible changes to your policy. In addition, you will have to allocate prep space and train a person to make pastas. Some may be scooped out like lasagnas and baked pastas, but others need to be made to order. With pastas that need to be sauteed, you need a cook who knows what he or she is doing so the sauce isn't burned or the pasta isn't overcooked.

Best Advice
"If you are going to add pastas, have fun with it," Andy says. "It is better to create a couple of signature dishes than offer 10 generic pastas. Use ingredients that you already have and give it a good name, like 'Grandma's Secret Recipe' or 'Aunt Rita's Pasta'. Be unique."

"Make sure you are properly equipped," John says. "You need prep space, and a way to cook and storage space. Start off with the basics and build up. It is easier to add an item than it is to remove items from the menu."

Pastas may not be for everyone, but for some it can be a way to boost lagging sales. Kids love pastas, they are great alternatives for lunch crowds and office deliveries and if marketed properly, can open up profitable catering opportunities. Rather than sit around and wait for things to get better, it may time to be proactive and turn things around yourself. Research your market and see if pastas are right for you.

Pasta FYI

  • The best pasta shapes for freezing are those that are used in baked recipes, such as: lasagne, jumbo shells, ziti and manicotti. You'll have better results if you prepare the recipe and freeze it before baking. To bake, thaw the dish to room temperature and bake as the recipe directs.
  • Northeasterners are more likely than people in other parts of the country to eat pasta on a weekly basis (84 percent v. 75 percent), while Southerners are less likely to eat pasta regularly (70 percent v. 81 percent). However, the most dramatic increase in pasta consumption overall has been in the South where 42 percent of Southerners are eating more pasta today than they were five years ago. Residents from the Northeast and the West are true pasta fans, in that one in five residents report serving pasta three or more times a week.
  • Store uncooked, dry pasta in your cupboard for up to one year. Keep in a cool, dry place. Follow the "first-in, first-out" rule: Use up packages you've had the longest before opening new packages.
  • Use plenty of water (4-6 quarts for each pound of pasta) and don't overcook it. Follow the package directions for cooking times.
  • Refrigerate cooked pasta in an airtight container for 3 to 5 days. You may add a little oil (1-2 tsp. for each pound of cooked pasta) to help keep it from sticking. Because cooked pasta will continue to absorb flavors and oils from sauces, store cooked pasta separately from sauce.
  • The only time you should rinse pasta after draining is when you are going to use it in a cold dish, or when you are not going to sauce and serve it immediately. In those cases, rinse the pasta under cold water to stop the cooking process, and drain well.

When making delicious pasta dishes, be sure to choose a pasta shape and sauce that complement each other. Thin, delicate pastas like angel hair or thin spaghetti, should be served with light, thin sauces. Thicker pasta shapes, like fettuccine, work well with heavier sauces. Pasta shapes with holes or ridges like mostaccioli or radiatore, are perfect for chunkier sauces.


Alphabets
– This favorite kids' shape is usually used in soups for a fun meal anytime.

Macaroni [mack-a-ROW-nee]
("Dumpling") – A highly versatile shape that can be topped with any sauce, baked, or put in soups, salads and stir-fry dishes.

Rotini [row-TEE-nee]
("Spirals" or "Twists") – Rotini's twisted shape holds bits of meat, vegetables and cheese, so it works well with any sauce, or you can use it to create fun salads, baked casseroles, or stir-fry meals.

Angel Hair, Capellini [CAP-a-lee-nee]
("Fine Hairs") – Thin, delicate strands are best if used with thinner, delicate sauces. Other uses: break in half and put in soup; use in salads or stir-fry meals.

Manicotti [man-a-COT-tee]
("Small Muffs") – Stuff Manicotti with a mixture of meat, cheese and vegetables, top with your favorite sauce, and bake. Or stuff and freeze for a later time.
Jumbo Shells – Best when stuffed with your favorite mixtures of cheese, meat and vegetables. Stuff with meat flavored with taco seasoning, top with salsa and bake for a delicious Mexican dish, or create your own stuffed treat.

Bow Ties, Farfalle [far-fol-LEE]
("Butterflies") – Bow Ties brighten any meal with their interesting shape. Thick enough for any sauce, or make into a salad or soup.

Medium Egg Noodles
(From "Nudel," German meaning paste with egg) – This size of Egg Noodle can be baked, tossed in soups or salads, or topped with cream, tomato, cheese or meat sauces for a delicious meal.

Medium Shells, Conchiglie [Kon-KEEL-yeh]
("Shells") – Shells make a great addition to soups or as the base of a wonderful salad. Try remaking your favorite Macaroni and Cheese using Shells, for a fun twist on a time-honored tradition.

Ditalini [dit-a-LEE-nee]
("Little Thimbles") – This versatile shape can be used as the base of any dish. Bake it, stir it into soups, or create great salads and stir-fry dishes.

Wide Egg Noodles
(From "Nudel," German meaning paste with egg) – Go beyond the traditional Stroganoff and use, Wide Egg Noodles to create soups, salads and casseroles. Or, top with any sauce and serve hot.

Spaghetti [spa-GET-tee]
("A Length of Cord") – America's favorite shape, Spaghetti is the perfect choice for nearly any sauce, or it can be used to make casseroles or stir-fry dishes. Go beyond tomato sauce and see what your favorite becomes.

Fettuccine [fet-a-CHEE-nee]
("Small Ribbons") – Perfect for heavier sauces, like cheese, meat and tomato sauces. For variety, try breaking in half and putting in soups, or use for a salad.

Orzo
("Barley") – This small, grain shaped pasta can be topped with any sauce, added to soups, or baked as a casserole. Perfect as a side dish as well as a main course.

Vermicelli [ver-ma-CHEL-ee]
("Little Worms") – Slightly thinner than Spaghetti, Vermicelli is good topped with any sauce, or as a salad or stir-fry ingredient.

Fusilli [foo-SILL-ee]
("Twisted Spaghetti") – This long, spiraled shape can be topped with any sauce, broken in half and added to soups, or turned into a beautiful salad. Fusilli also bakes well in casseroles.

Penne, Mostaccioli [mos-ta-CHOL-ee]
("Quills" and "Small Mustaches," respectively) – This tubular pasta goes well with sauce, used in salads, baked in casseroles, or made into stir fry dishes.

Wagon Wheels, Ruote [roo-O-tay]
("Wheels") – Wagon Wheels make interesting salads, casseroles and stir-fry dishes. Add to soups, or simply top with sauce and enjoy.

Lasagne [la-ZON-ya]
(From "lasanum," Latin for pot) – Create new Lasagne casseroles by using chopped vegetables, cheeses and any kind of sauce. You can also assemble your casserole and freeze it for later.

Radiatore [rad-e-a-TOR-ee]
("Radiators") – This ruffled, ridged shape adds elegant interest to any sauce. It also works well baked in casseroles, or used in salads and soups.

Ziti [zee-tee]
("Bridegrooms") – A medium-sized, tubular pasta shape, Ziti is perfect for chunky sauces and meat dishes. It also makes wonderful salads, baked dishes and stir-fry meals.

Linguine [lin-GWI-nee]
("Little Tongues") – A great shape for all sauces. Also a good choice for salads and stir-fry dishes.

Rigatoni [rig-a-TONE-ee]
("Large Grooved") – Rigatoni's ridges and holes are perfect with any sauce, from cream or cheese to the chunkiest meat sauces.