An Appetite for Appetizers

An Appetite for Appetizers
When it comes to creativity and bold flavor, appetizers continue to shine as one of the most on-trend menu parts. Patrons seek out items from the appetizer menu for a variety of reasons: to share with a group, to snack on, or even to serve as meals in and of themselves. But beyond classics like nachos and calamari, what sort of starters can drive sales in your operation?

Protein-based dishes are ideal for satisfying these consumer demands, and the possibilities are truly endless. So let’s start with the facts: after soup and salad, chicken wings are the most popular item on appetizer menus (Datassential MenuTrends, 2018). Today I’ll talk about “what’s next” in wings as well as share some ideas for other up-and-coming appetizers that can boost check averages and create a memorable dining experience for your guests.

Reinvent a classic

Let’s start with those beloved chicken wings. Think beyond the traditional Buffalo, bleu cheese, barbecue and ranch flavors that are commonly served as dips or glazes and consider how the chicken wing can be dressed to accommodate on-trend global ingredients. I love the idea of a wing “flight” with a trio of bold dipping sauces: peri-peri (African Bird’s Eye Chili), sweet chili (Thai-inspired) and chimichurri (a classic Argentine condiment). When you start with fully cooked IQF wings, you’ll save prep time; sauces or shake-on seasonings can be easily added back-of-house.

Or, go boneless for even more sharable plate potential. Simply pop fully cooked breaded boneless wings, strips or tenders in the fryer for a quick retherm and go bold with your dipping sauces. Playful takes on patron favorites like chicken and waffles can find a home on your appetizer menu. Sweet waffle-breaded chicken tenders with hot honey dipping sauce, anyone?

Another idea is to blur the lines between entrées and apps with items like indulgent finger sandwiches. You can showcase bold, zesty flavors in tiny packages—such as mini Philly steak grilled cheese sandwiches on garlic knots, with jalapeño cheese sauce, au jus and bacon BBQ for dipping. Or, put a spin on bruschetta by playing off the avocado toast trend. Top a sliced baguette with shaved smoked turkey, sliced apples, mashed avocado and melted brie.


New and next-level

Loaded fries, tots and house-made chips are becoming more popular as the base for appetizers that feature flavorful braised and pulled meats. Taking a cue from Canadian poutine, these smothered delights are cheesy, meaty, salty, savory—and totally mouthwatering. You can’t go wrong with loaded BBQ fries, topped with braised pulled pork shoulder, spicy barbecue sauce, candied jalapeños and melted aged cheddar.

Other small plates with innovation potential include meatballs and sliders. Both dishes have demonstrated double-digit growth on appetizer menus over the past four years (Datassential). Consider the versatility of turkey meatballs—they’re juicy and full of flavor, with the added benefit of having a “health halo” that appeals to many patrons. Offer turkey meatball caprese skewers, studded with fresh mozzarella and basil, and served with marinara dipping sauce. On the slider side, swap out beef patties for braised meats. Cuban-style pulled pork sliders with Swiss, pickles and mustard are perfect for sharing!

Don’t forget to think about new menu concepts in terms of alcohol pairings to boost your profit potential even further. The meatball skewer makes an ideal match with Italian wines, and the sliders can accompany a signature cocktail, such as a spicy honey mojito.

Creating crave-worthy appetizers with West Liberty Foods

We offer a full portfolio of protein solutions that help to enliven old favorites—and spark your imagination for creating all-new signature starters. Here’s just a sampling of our product capabilities:

  • Fully cooked wings
  • Fully cooked breaded items
  • Meatballs
  • Sliced deli meats
  • Braised and pulled meats
An Appetite for Appetizers

Ready to move those “left side of the menu” dishes to center stage? Contact me so we can discuss appetizer innovation, with a West Liberty Foods twist!
– Chef Aliza

Datassential MenuTrends, U.S. menu penetration growth 2014-2018.
Datassential, “On the Menu: Loaded Fries,” March 2017.
Technomic, “Appetizer Menu Trends,” 2018.
Technomic, “Chicken Wing Menu Trends,” 2018.
Technomic, “Starters, Small Plates & Sides: Consumer Trend Report,” 2017.