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Small plates continue to boost restaurant sales, diner experience.

While the concept of offering an extended list of appetizers, sharable plates, and other smaller portions in the form of "small plates," isn't new by any means, the trend has continued among restaurants of all sizes. These sharable plates not only allow restaurants to build their profit margins on food sales, they also offer options for creativity, both for the chefs and the consumers.

"Small plates offer chefs and consumers the chance to try something new without going too far out of cost constraints," said Eric Cronert, vice president of marketing and merchandising for Monarch Food Group, a division of U.S. Foodservice. And, with consumers still concerned about price points and the costs of dining out, a wider small plates menu can afford them the flavor differentiation they're looking for without the potential for a wallet-busting, three- to four- or even five-course meal.

Essentially, Cronert said, restaurants that showcase small plates on their menu provide consumers with a great in-between option -- they can still get out of their house and dine out, but they don't have to spend hefty amounts on a nice meal. "The interest is there, especially among younger clientele who want to make a full meal out of their night but also share in a gastronomic experience," Cronert said.

And, because small plates are often consumed in the vein of cocktails and wine, while seated at the bar or among groups of diners ordering bottles of wine and multiple drinks, they help boost alcohol sales and therefore, profit margins too. Restaurants can also charge a little more per small plate over the cost of the food going on the plate -- another profit margin boosting trick.

Aside from the perceived value of small plates, these types of dishes also allow diners to eat healthier, in the form of smaller portions, when dining out. "Many operators are now offering half portions of entrees," said Cronert. "Consumers want to eat healthy but they still want to indulge, so small plates really hit that area spot on." The added appetizers in some cases also give diners options to choose a combination of those as an entrée instead of a full-sized dish.

While chain customers are forging ahead with this trend, from Capital Grille to Smith & Wollensky and Cattleman's Steakhouse (typically known for their larger portions), smaller, independent restaurants are also capitalizing on it as well, especially at chef-driven eateries. Coupled with the local/seasonal/sustainable food movement going on, small plates allow chefs to experiment with these smaller-batch and small-farm, artisan and/or organic foods that change frequently or don't always meet the volumes required to take a permanent spot on menus.

For a host of small plate recipes and ideas, visit

Same-store sales are increasing. As the nation begins to emerge from recession, restaurants are seeing lapsed customers return, according to Technomic, a research firm in Chicago. Same-store sales are also increasing, a positive recovery signal. Still big changes in food and dining trends are ahead. The firm outlined its picks for this year's top trends in the industry:

1. Adult beverages -- as Americans begin to celebrate again, we'll be seeing more classic, "Mad Men"-style cocktails that use high-cachet gin and bourbon, as well as craft beers, and spiked punch. Also look for cocktails with herbal and floral ingredients, and "skinny" cocktails with less calories. 2. Food trucks - facilitated by social media telling foodies of their whereabouts, these restaurants-on-wheels are popping up around the country, even skirting legal boundaries, such as in Chicago, where food must be prepared in offsite commercial kitchens before being sold off a truck. These mobile options also offer restaurant startups the option for significantly lower cost concept creation compared to traditional brick and mortar eateries. 3. Farmers as celebrities -- chefs were once the stars, now the farmers from whom they source are taking up just as much of the spotlight. Restaurants will continue to feature their celebrity suppliers in elaborate menu descriptions as well as through special menus, dinners and blogs. 4. Social media and technology -- constant changes are on the horizon for the new future when it comes to changes in applications for marketing and operations. Kiosk ordering, wine lists on iPads, tableside payment systems, couponing websites and location-based social media will grow alongside the apps fad. 5. Korean-the Korean taco, an only-in-America synthesis of Korean-style fillings and a Mexican format, will continue to shine on menus (and food trucks) alongside a growing demand for Korean barbecue and Korean food in general. 6. Frugality Fatigue - penny-pinching is getting old. Dipping back into luxury will take hold in 2011. Look for flashy, high-end restaurants and some extravagant, indulgent menu specials. Think thrill-a-minute concepts with memorable menus and more "gastropubs," common spots with a less-than-common food menu. 7. Deals - consumers will continue to demand price deals, but as food prices heat up next year, sustaining the bottom line will continue to be a crucial. Look for more restructured or reworded price deals to insinuate value in a more poignant way. 8. Brand Action-brand refreshes and remodels will take hold next year as the restaurant industry emerges from recession and capital spending picks up. Those new units that will be built will likely have smaller footprints and have many sustainable features with efficient layouts. 9. Comfort Food -- this trend will continue into next year with more Southern fare like grits and seafood, retro Italian dishes and family-style service formats. 10. C-Store Competition - convenience-store operators are upgrading their foodservice offerings, including both food and ambiance, where margins are 40-60 percent instead of the 5 percent typical for gas, and consumers are welcoming the change. 11. Healthy vs. Indulgent - as federal menu labeling requirements take effect in 2011, consumers may look to eat healthy but their tendency and desire to indulge once in a while is just as strong.

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