The ascent of the once-humble side dish has come about in stages. First, steakhouses began to innovate and elevate the way they treat vegetables. In the process, they created decadent cult favorites like lobster baked potatoes and truffle mac and cheese. Next, vegetarian and plant-based eating became more popular—and sometimes the best place on the menu to find vegetables was among the side dishes. Finally, diners started to crave customization. Instead of having the chef decide what starch or veg should go with what protein, today’s patrons want to pick and choose their own sides—treating them almost like shared small plates or tapas.
The Elevated Vegetable
What makes a side dish irresistible? Steakhouses have shown that even the simplest vegetable, when dressed up, can become an object of desire. “Side dishes need to have a degree of difficulty that people can’t do at home,” says Neil Doherty, Sysco’s Senior Director of Culinary Development. Home cooks might steam or boil veggies, but they wouldn’t sous vide carrots and toss with French butter and bonito flakes. People dine out to feast on specialized dishes such as Duck Fat Confit Fingerling Potatoes or Cauliflower and Lobster “Mac” and Cheese. It’s that chef-driven elevation—the quality of the ingredients, sophisticated techniques and presentation—that makes the difference, whether the dish is larded with bacon, vegan or gluten-free.
Side dishes need to have a degree of difficulty that people can’t do at home.
Chef Neil Doherty
Rise of the Plants
Plant-based eating is on the rise, and diners are looking for vegetables across the menu. Aside from vegans and vegetarians, many diners are choosing a “flexitarian” lifestyle, in which they eat mainly plants but occasionally enjoy meat. In the past, vegans and vegetarians were often relegated to the side dish section of the menu. Now, however, creative sides/small plates are simply a great opportunity for chefs to showcase colorful vegetables, with and without a meat accent. Roasted Broccolini with Lemon and Garlic is a simple dish that highlights the gorgeous hue of the vegetable. And Pressure-Cooked Glazed Vegetables offers a rainbow of vibrant color that works for all dietary types.
Versatile Small Plates
A versatile dish like buffalo-garlic Brussels Sprouts With Vegan Ranch Dressing can be menu’d as a side dish, appetizer or small plate. As diners grow more sophisticated, explains Sysco Menu Consultant Bruce Barnes, they want to customize their own meal instead of having the chef do it for them. This means small plates are becoming more important, profitable—and for some diners, the menu favorites that drives loyalty and repeat business.
A New Paradigm
The ascent of the side dish “is changing the way menus are designed and organized,” says Barnes,“and even the way we dine out.” Instead of ordering an appetizer and a main dish, a group may order several interesting side dishes or small plates to share, plus a few mains. Something like Fried Avocado Wedges With Roasted Corn is another great example of a shareable side. Depending on how you price these dishes, this shift in dining can be a real profit maker for your operation.
Ask your Marketing Associate about how Sysco’s Menu Services can help you create compelling menus that drive sales.