There’s a reason that local, seasonal eating has become all the rage in recent years. Food is fresher, travels fewer miles to get to your plate, and tastes better. If you’ve ever compared a grocery store tomato bought in January with one grown in a home garden, then you understand the difference.
Seasonal eating has been something that started with home cooks buying at farmer’s markets, but the movement is moving into the restaurant world in full force. Restaurant owners and chefs everywhere are embracing seasonal menus to get diners focused on quality and nutrition in their doors.
Before you embark on such a project, you need to know what to do, and also what not to do to make it work correctly. It will require much more thought and work than creating a permanent menu, but it keeps your menu fresh and interesting when updated several times a year instead of once every few years.
Before you embark on such a project, it helps to know what it entails, and how to implement it in a way that both you and your customers can appreciate. Read on to learn everything you need to know about making the best seasonal menu you can.
Find a Reliable Source
You probably won’t be able to find a lot of fresh, local products from the corporate vendors you buy paper products and canned goods from.
While many restaurants get produce from farmer’s markets, this may not be an option if you have a large restaurant that serves a lot of diners. The last thing you want is to create a great menu but find that you constantly run out because you can’t get enough or there weren’t any tomatoes today.
It may be best to work with the farmers themselves and come up with a system of delivery or pickup that works for you. Most farmers will happily work with restaurants and local business because it means selling a lot of product at once. You may also be able to get a price break this way.
Don’t Worry About Every Single Food
If you’re going to advertise a seasonal menu, then you should make as much as possible with seasonal, local food, but there will always be foods that you can’t get locally. Salt, pepper, and other spices, olive oil, and even some produce that you want to use year round (onions, for example) aren’t going to be easy to come by unless you happen to live near an olive grove, or in a climate that promotes growing year round.
You should, however, try your best to use seasonal and local foods whenever possible. For example, if peaches are grown in abundance during the summer, use peaches for dessert instead of something with bananas.
Don’t Fake It
It may be tempting to simply say that your produce is local and/or seasonal, when in fact it’s not, but you won’t be able to keep that up for long. Customers will ask where your products come from; the type of diner that frequents restaurants of this type is definitely interested. Again, if you can’t get everything from a local source, that’s fine; claiming something is when it’s not is definitely not okay.
Hire Employees That Know How to Handle Fresh Food
It’s not uncommon to find restaurants in which every product comes from boxes, bags, or cans, and is heated in the microwave, which is fine for many people.
Cooking fresh foods is a much different type of cooking, and requires someone with the skills and expertise necessary to do so.
Fresh cooking involves chopping and slicing with knives and cutlery instead of opening with can openers. It requires techniques and sometimes training that not everyone has. High quality food means nothing if it is prepared poorly, so make sure that you have someone in the kitchen that knows what they are doing to make your seasonal menu shine.
Have Some Menu Staples
While a constantly changing menu is part of seasonal eating, you have to remember that not all diners adapt to that type of change well. Many people visit restaurants over and over again because they have favorite dishes, and if they can’t always get them, they may not come back until next year.
Have at least one or two menu items that don’t change, even if it means they aren’t always made with in season ingredients. Make sure they are dishes that get rave reviews, but also that fit in with the rest of your menu. And of course when you can get local and season foods to use in these dishes, do so.
Think Beyond Produce
While fresh fruit and veggies are what most people think of when they think of seasonal eating, other food products are seasonal as well. Spring lamb, herbs, and honey are all grown or made seasonally in some areas, and foods like dairy products, eggs, and meats can be bought from local farms. Any food that has to travel needs special care to get it to you safely, which means the quality probably isn’t as good.
Consider Growing Your Own
One of the best ways to eat seasonally and locally is to grow your own fruits and vegetables. If you have a space at your restaurant, this is ideal, but if not, consider a home garden if possible. Diners will appreciate the effort, and you’ll find that you can save a lot of money this way.
Have a Tasting Session with Each Menu Change
In most places, a seasonal menu requires adding new items every three to four months to really get the most out of what your climate has to offer. For this reason, you should be constantly thinking about the next season’s menu. Make notes of recipes you’d like to try, and try them out at both home and the restaurant. When you’ve finally narrowed it down, get together with your chef and have a tasting session before rolling out new items. Invite family, friends, and your staff to the restaurant after closing to taste and critique everything. Do this with enough advance notice that you can make changes if necessary.
Don’t Forget About Costs
It can be easy to get caught up in chaining your menu and adding new and inventive dishes, but remember the goal of your restaurant: to make money. Keep track of costs while you’re testing recipes, and eliminate items that may be too costly to keep on (such as expensive cheese or meats.)
Do What You Can
Changing your menu four times a year is difficult, and adds an extra challenge that some restaurant owners just don’t want to take on. If you don’t want to make the commitment to a full change, just make small changes, such as adding a dessert with spring strawberries or just changing your menu in the spring and fall instead of all four seasons. As long as you don’t advertise your restaurant as being something it’s not, then you can do whatever you want.
As restaurant diners become more focused on health and the environment, seasonal eating has become much more frequent in a lot of restaurants. If you are looking to add some seasonal products to your menu, it’s important to understand how to do it, as well as the time and costs involved to do it properly.