How a great base inspires appetizer options

mini chicken burgers

From Pierce Chicken.

Appetizers tap into a number of foodservice trends: the penchant for sharing, a fondness for snacking, as a complement to drinks and as a way to get an order started while the rest of the menu gets a closer look. They also provide an important first impression. Assembling a killer app lineup, then, is essential. 

With labor at a premium, food costs on the rise and the pressure to get appetizer orders out to tables quickly, cross-utilization is a no-brainer. Riffing off an appetizer menu built around a few strategically chosen proteins and traditional best sellers is one way to ensure profitability and minimize potential waste.

Chicken wings and beyond

A product like chicken, for example, taps into consumer demand while also providing the flexibility to be made into many dishes—wings, skewers, nuggets, tenders and more.
Wings have earned a solid place on many appetizer and bar bites menus, and operators have found ways to keep them interesting with dipping sauce flavors that stray way beyond the standard ranch. The New York State-based Planet Wings offers something for everyone, from seven styles of barbecue sauce to lemon pepper, butter garlic, Cajun and even “suicidal” hot sauces.

But wings are only the tip of the iceberg. According to Technomic’s 2017 Starters, Small Plates and Sides report, 41% of consumers said if appetizers featuring chicken strips, nuggets or tenders were available, they would be likely to order them at least occasionally. Breaded chicken strips are the most popular appetizer—not surprising, given the surging appetite for fried chicken, tenders and chicken sandwiches in recent years—and breaded proteins are the fastest growing category of appetizers, up 8% year-over-year.

Global influence for increased interest

Street foods provide a world of inspiration for appetizer plates. Foods popularized by street vendors in Asia, Latin America and India reflect consumer preferences for bolder ethnic flavors, and many of these dishes provide a perfect springboard for appetizer choices. The menu at Grand Luxe Café, for example, includes Buffalo Chicken Rolls—chicken breast, cheese and buffalo sauce tucked into a spring roll wrapper and fried until crisp—as well as Crispy Thai Shrimp & Chicken Spring Rolls, Chicken Lettuce Wraps and a Stacked Chicken Quesadilla. Loaded Nachos at The Loop West End in St. Louis Park, MN, come piled with ancho chili chicken, roasted corn salsa, cheese and sour cream; Green Chili Chicken Tacos layer in queso fresco, corn salsa and cilantro sour cream; Buffalo Chicken Wontons are stuffed with buffalo chicken, cream cheese and herbs.

Ethnic-inspired skewers add both visual and flavor excitement to any appetizer menu, as well as the ability to customize without a lot of effort or product. From the Indonesian satay to Brazilian churrasco, Japanese yakitori, Middle Eastern kebab and beyond, skewers often involve simply grilled or roasted meats paired with a variety of simply prepared dipping sauces. For guests, it’s a fun, shareable and flavorful start to a meal, something to break the ice at a cocktail reception and, when done right, an Instagram-worthy plate.

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