As an independent restaurant, one of the best ways to keep customers coming back for more is to offer them something that’s both delicious and unique. Every restaurant on every corner offers a burger and a steak, but if yours has an incredible house-made sauce, it goes from something you can get anywhere to something you can’t get anywhere else. This is how you create signature dishes—and it may be easier than you think.
We love cooking from scratch and will recommend that throughout this post, but we’re also advocates of keeping things simple. Sometimes, you can combine a few products to develop a new flavour profile or add fresh ingredients to a prepared item to make it your own. There’s nothing wrong with this approach—as Ina Garten always says, store bought is fine—and it’s a great way to save time and money while delivering consistency. And, as an added bonus, even your less experienced kitchen staff can handle this type of task with ease!
So, what’s your secret sauce? Morton is here to help—here are some tips directly from the skilled, experienced chefs on our team. To learn more or get personalized recommendations for your menu, please contact us.
Let’s talk dips
Dips are a great app because they’re easy to prepare ahead of time, widely appealing, delicious, shareable and cost-effective. You can pair them with a simple, dippable carb or even crudité, and it’s easy to use them on other parts of your menu (for example, on a burger or in a wrap). The margins on this type of menu item are fantastic, and the possibilities are truly endless: hummus made with chickpeas, lentils, edamame or other legumes, black or white bean dips, artichoke dips, spreads made from roasted root vegetables, creamy mayonnaise-based dips, cheese-forward or spicy options, avocado-based dips, eggplant spreads and more. Many can be prepared cold (and sometimes served chilled), making them easy for prep cooks to take care of early in the day.
There are classic dips from all over the world, allowing you to offer a wide variety of tastes and textures. Or, create your own! Many dips are vegetarian or vegan, which appeals to a wider range of diners, but others can include bacon or shredded chicken. Consider upgrading your dip offering by pairing it with deep-fried pita triangles, fried pasta or wontons instead of basic tortilla chips—or, offer several dips as a “flight” with several dippable options on the side. You can also serve your dips with lightly roasted root vegetables or root vegetable chips for a colourful plate and gourmet feel. If your customers are looking for ways to eat the rainbow and enjoy healthier menu options, this approach will definitely get their attention.
Dressings, sauces and marinades
Here’s a secret: most great dressings can also be a delicious sauce or a marinade. So, if you make an incredible spiced yogurt to top your lamb chops, consider using it as a marinade in another dish and thinning it out to create a salad dressing as well. The same can be said if you’re creating herb-based dressings, vinaigrettes, blue cheese dressings and more. Try to use key ingredients in several preparations to make the most of each one—we can help you develop this part of your menu, if you’re interested in collaborating with our team.
Another tip: if you’re working with emulsions like an aioli or have a great bearnaise sauce, offer these items as a dip for fries as well as a sandwich spread. You can also make spicy ketchup (just add sriracha) or mayo with smoked peppers. A lot of dips can be used to elevate proteins, so consider your entree menu when developing your apps. Crossover is a good thing!
Brines, customizations and more
A simple brine with great flavour can add a ton of value to your menu without overspending. Consider having a master brine that you can tweak for various recipes on the menu. Most brines are made primarily with water, sugar and salt, but you can get creative with aromatic spices, maple syrup, craft beer, local cider and more. Be sure to explain this local connection on your menu—it’s a great selling point!
Brining your proteins will lock in flavour and moisture, and using a marinade will inject a ton of flavour while adding to an item’s shelf life. The preservation elements of marinating food is a great cost-saver, and your customers will love those notes of spice, citrus and other warm or bright flavours.
Serve something special
When you have a variety of sauces, dressings and other flavour-builders, you can offer them to your customers as a customization. This makes them feel ownership and pride in various dishes they “create”—for example, adding a horseradish aioli to their favourite steak sandwich, or requesting spicy ketchup on their swiss mushroom burger—and essentially turns these customers into ambassadors for your brand. After all, they’ll want to share their favourites with friends and family (or on social media). An added win!
If your foodservice establishment is part of a craft brewery, cidery or distillery, be sure to incorporate your best products on the menu. A beer-brined chicken breast, a salad with ice wine in the dressing, a tender cider-infused pork chop or a steak that was aged in local whiskey—all of these are incredible menu options. You can even brine breakfast meat to give it an elevated profile! Or, incorporate in-house or local products to menu items that involve smoked, braised or dry-brined proteins. Get creative—that’s why your customers are there, after all.
A few final ideas before we go
- Innovate! Everyone has a Caesar salad on the menu, but your dressing can be made in-house with a combination of fresh garlic and roasted garlic, or a parmesan vinaigrette instead of a traditional creamy dressing. Or, finish with aged cheddar instead of shaved parm!
- When you use citrus fruit, find a use for the zest—always! It adds zero expense and tons of flavour.
- Fresh herbs are your friend. Use them well!
- Understand that some dips, like remoulades, are even better after 24-48 hours.
- When it comes to hot sauces, buy a well-known local product or offer them what they know: Franks, Sriracha, etc. Sometimes, familiarity wins.
- Pickle things! Adding chopped, pickled vegetables to a dip or dressing is an incredible finishing touch. You can even pickle blueberries, watermelon rind or orange zest! Use the leftover pickling liquid to brine chicken or another item.
- When developing dip-based dishes, consider creating a platter that includes warm or stuffed olives alongside some great, fresh bread—this will feel high end but is simple and cost-effective.
- Speaking of olives, don’t forget tapenade and antipasto! Tapenades can also be used to crust fish and other proteins.
- Try smoked or charred elements, sweet elements, spicy notes and other fun flavours. You can even work in local chutneys or jams!
- Utilize dairy products like yogurt or buttermilk in poultry marinades to help tenderize the meat.
- Substitute less expensive nuts like toasted almonds or walnuts in place of pine nuts (pesto, we’re talking to you) and utilize trims to avoid waste and minimize costs.
- Be intentional with your presentation—for example, a cast iron pan will allow dips to retain heat on the table, oil infusions are beautiful as well as delicious, and butter adds a velvety texture to dips.
Finally, remember to use the right verbiage on your menu—terms like pub-crafted or crafted in house may help you make sales. And, if you’re serving cocktails, make those syrups in house, too—that’s always more appealing.
Now that you know more than ever about dips, we hope you’ll feel inspired to make additions to your menu. Thanks very much for reading, and please reach out to our team if you have any questions or feedback—we look forward to hearing from you.