Get Used to Smaller Menus

Supply chain issues, labor shortages, and ongoing unpredictability are all making menus a little pared down this year—but that may not be a bad thing.

illustration of table for two with server
Photo: Franz Lang

This story is part of The New Rules of Dining Out. Read the rest here.

If you've dined out anytime in the past few months, you may have noticed menus are a little smaller. For starters, blame staffing shortages. "Even just one less cook at night eliminates an entire station," says Cheetie Kumar, owner of Garland restaurant in Raleigh, North Carolina. Fewer people means the workload increases for everyone.

Add to this supply chain problems. At Maydan in Washington, D.C., owner Rose Previte says procuring ingredients like spices and oils pose problems, in part because global distributors are facing their own labor shortages. Plus, she says, "keeping the menus smaller means we have to 86 things, and disappoint guests, less often."

In turn, everything is more expensive. According to Nicholas Elmi of Philadelphia's Laurel and Lark, "Fish went up about 10 percent [in June] alone." The cost of Maryland blue crab meat has more than tripled, says the chef, clocking in now at $55 per pound. "They don't have people to pick crab." This has led Laurel to offer one tasting menu instead of two.

Besides minimizing disappointment and keeping menu costs down, offering fewer dishes also means more efficiency and less waste for an industry that already operates on razor thin margins.

So expect smaller menus for now, but know that's not necessarily a bad thing. Chefs who once felt pressure to offer Cheesecake Factory-length menus are feeling more freedom to pare down. "I've really found a way to express myself in a way that represents a little bit of the freedom that I acquired in this last year," says Kumar. "I've been really proud of the food that we're putting out."

Smaller menus mean more focus.

Chef Marcus Samuelsson agrees. "Smaller menus mean more focus," he points out. "Thriller was only nine songs. My point is that this is a time when we will see American food through a different lens."

Below, chefs and restaurant workers weigh in on why menus will continue to be a little smaller this year.

There's a shortage of workers

"Small menus are a product of the labor shortage. Also, inconsistent product delivery or no delivery at all from the purveyors makes it very challenging to have a larger menu. Purveyors are also short on warehouse workers and truck drivers. Having smaller menus also makes it more streamlined to serve consistent dishes during these times." —Kerem Bozer, owner of Tacos Güey, New York City

A worker shortage means food costs have skyrocketed

"COVID-19 has created a real shortage of premium proteins such as beef and pork which has caused massive price jumps and unpredictable delivery schedules. To meet this challenge at Ponyboy, we have shifted our menus to fresh small plates with as much local sourcing as possible."—Gabriella Valls, chef of Ponyboy, New York City

"Costs, costs and costs! Restaurants are just getting back on their feet so it doesn't make sense to go to a full menu just yet. Food costs have always been a difficult thing to manage. It's now even more challenging with the constant increase in prices for ingredients. Diners are being more conservative with the dining budget as well, making it challenging to revert to a full menu. I don't foresee menu lengths increasing very much in the coming months." —Andre Fowles, chef and culinary director of Miss Lily's, New York City

"We're grateful that people are dining out again and excited to see our beloved hospitality community reinvigorated, but restaurants like ours will likely be dealing with reverberations from the pandemic for some time including ongoing labor shortages and supply-chain challenges. We're currently offering à la carte and full vegan and omnivore tasting menus with wonderful breadth and depth, but there may be certain ingredients that we avoid if they become prohibitively expensive, since we don't want our guests to shoulder the increased cost. For example there were certain seafood items at the end of summer that reached record wholesale prices." —Mary Attea, chef of The Musket Room, New York City

Smaller menus mean more efficiency, less waste and more operating income for the owners.

Supply chains are a nightmare

"Supply challenges have become increasingly difficult. We haven't been able to get Coke or Diet Coke for months! The labor shortage is affecting distribution channels as well, hiking up the cost of raw prices of the goods we buy and thereby necessarily being passed on to the consumer. Menus will remain short and focused and comfort-based as we move into colder weather and the threat of variants. Smaller menus mean more efficiency, less waste and more operating income for the owners, which is very important at this time." Amy Brandwein, chef and owner of Centrolina, Washington, D.C.

"It's really hard to run a restaurant when your delivery truck just doesn't show up one day because they can't find enough drivers, or it shows up at 9 p.m. when you're already in service, or your milk delivery isn't on the truck because the distributor hasn't gotten their delivery of milk from their supplier. We've also been trying to minimize waste in order to watch our food costs because our margins are tighter than ever. Between the two of these, a lot of restaurants, including Dirt Candy, have had to simplify and foolproof our menus. One day we want to get back to bigger menus and fancier ingredients but until this industry has stabilized, today is not that day." —Amanda Cohen, chef of Dirt Candy and chef/co-founder of Lekka Burger, New York City

The pandemic is still causing general unpredictability

"The market is still volatile, some days you have a huge influx of customers and the other days you may have very few. A large menu means it's much harder to manage the ingredients, labor, and food waste." —Yong Zhao, co-founder and CEO of Junzi Kitchen and Nice Day, New York City & New Haven, Connecticut.

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