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4 steps to crafting a well-balanced prepared foods menu

Steven Petusevsky

May 13, 2016

5 Min Read
4 steps to crafting a well-balanced prepared foods menu

Your foodservice menu is one of the most important programs you will ever create. It is founded upon what I call the “menu matrix”—the core from which every single item, from prepackaged dinners to hot-bar entrées, will flow. Eventually, even your catering menu will be rooted in this matrix. If created carefully, your menu matrix is like a web interconnected at exactly the right coordinates, enabling you to operate efficiently and profitably.

Where to start?

A good first step in constructing your menu matrix is determining which offerings you will make in-house and which you will purchase from vendor partners. Most retail prepared foods programs consist of both. If there is a central commissary located near you, that’s another possibility. Using outside vendors usually costs more, potentially meaning a lower profit margin on certain items. However, while profitability is certainly important, keep in mind that the primary purpose of your finished menu is to truly service your customers—and that requires a balanced suite of offerings. Therefore, it’s fine for some items to yield much higher margins than others. For example, you may make only a 50 percent profit on a shrimp dish while your delicious black bean salad yields 75 percent. But when you have a great assortment of offerings that people want and will come to demand, you’ll build lasting loyalty.

The formula

The glass case represents only one element of the overall prepared foods offering. In fact, impressive self-service prepared foods venues are becoming increasingly popular with each having its own matrix as well. I’m talking about custom sandwiches and other hand-to-mouth food, wok stations, made-to-order tossed salads, fresh pizza, live action food stations and even poke (fish salad). The reason I bring all of these food outlets up is because the core of the original menu matrix supports each and every one of these concepts.

For example, if the core menu offers a special tuna or chicken salad to be sold in the chef’s case, then these items also find a way into sandwiches, prepacked salads and paninis. Pasta from a wok station may become a component in a prepackaged to-go meal, as does the charred lemon broccoli which goes into a Vietnamese Bahn Mi.

Over a few decades of menu engineering, here’s what I’ve found to be the best way to create the decision-making process path. This is my personal formula for ensuring balance. I divide my proposed menu items into three major culinary categories:

• Proteins such as beef, pork, chicken, turkey, seafood, tofu, tempeh, seitan
• Bean and legume, grain, vegetable, pasta, potato
• Special designations such as Vegan, vegetarian, gluten free

Only after the categories are created does the actual menu engineering start. You want to make sure you cover each category and have a good balance. For example, in a well-balanced chef’s case, we want to offer a few dishes from each of the above categories. Some beef items, a pork, two beans, three grains, pure vegetable, pasta items and some vegetarian. There are several dishes that can cross these food categories, but by volume, if you put 30 dishes on platters in your case, you want to divide these categories properly. You don’t want to have six poultry dishes, only one pasta or no grains.  

The trickle-down theory

A distinct menu flow now emerges from all the above-mentioned considerations. The main or core menu is created. The core is determined by current trend information, customer requests, the creativity of your culinary team and price parameters that you feel represent your store’s requirements. Once the core menu is set, all additional food concepts are designed and set in place, such as custom sandwiches, pizza, grab-and-go or whatever you feel will perform well. You can go either wild or mild based on your store’s demographics.

Recently, I’ve seen everything from Korean street tacos to poke to bone broth in supermarkets, so there’s a broad spectrum of possibilities. If a menu is engineered well, many of the core ingredients will be incorporated into multiple items. This will help keep production, labor and cost of goods down. For example, if your house-made burrito features an heirloom tomato salsa, you might serve that same salsa over the grilled flank steaks offered in your chef’s case. Or perhaps take the spicy firecracker sauce that you drizzle on your roast turkey sandwich, toss it with bay shrimp and serve it in your seafood department.

Fine-tune and deliver

Delivering the right menu is a complex process much like conducting a massive orchestra. The only difference? Once developed, it goes on forever. A vast majority of the items I created for a large natural foods chain over a 10-year span are still offered today. Well-chosen menu items have no shelf life and are often passed on through generations of shoppers. Once the menu matrix is developed and you’re putting the program in place, listen carefully to your customers’ feedback to ensure you’re continually delivering the foods they want. You must fine-tune your matrix to reflect personal connection with your customers. Often, dietary needs like gluten free, low fat, low salt or high protein are all part of the mix, and these considerations are the polish that gives your menu wow factor and earns customer loyalty.

Because I’m a visual person, I also think about what all these items will look like together once they are prepared and placed. Try to rely on natural colors and shapes.

Most important though, deliver every day your store is open. You must be able to deliver consistency, quality and great taste on a regular basis. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. I would always rather offer 50 expertly and perfectly prepared items than 75 that are simply OK.

Chef Steven Petusevsky works as a culinary resource for several companies, can often be found squeezing fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables in produce sections and will travel long distances for the perfect meal.

About the Author(s)

Steven Petusevsky

Culinary Innovation

Chef Steven Petusevsky is nationally known as a pioneer in the pairing of health and exceptional taste. His culinary studies have taken him across the globe in search of innovative and authentic cooking techniques. Robust earthy flavors and vibrant cuisines capture the influence and unique reinterpretations of the ethnic dishes he is famous for creating.

Chef Steve was the National Director of Creative Food Development for Whole Foods Market from 1990 to 2002. He wrote the book on natural foods, quite literally. He is the author of The Whole Foods Market Cookbook – A Guide to Natural Foods with 350 Recipes published by Clarkson Potter in fall 2002.

Since 2002, he has worked as an outside resource and industry consultant to innovate or create food service programs for major retail and restaurant chains and institutions including Google, Lettuce Entertain You Group, UCLA, UMASS, Roundy’s, Mariano’s and Lucky’s Markets, among others. His passion and expertise in “plant forward” and Mediterranean-inspired cuisine remains the central focus of his work.

Petusevsky is a celebrated food journalist. His monthly column entitled Inspired Vegetarian for Cooking Light Magazine ran for more than four years and he continues to write special features for the magazine. His weekly syndicated column Vegetarian Today, written for The Chicago Tribune news service, was published in hundreds of newspapers across the nation for more than a decade. His work has also been featured in Health, Fine Cooking, the LA Times Syndicate, Food & Wine and Restaurant Hospitality.

His recently published books, The Diabetes Vegetarian Cookbook and Sizzle and Smoke: Diabetes Friendly Recipes for Charcoal, Gas and Stovetop Grills were published by the American Diabetes Association in 2013 and early 2014.

Petusevsky is currently a member of the Menus of Change Advisory Board for the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and co-chair of the CIA’s Appetites & Innovation initiative, a national leadership collaborative created for the purpose of advancing culinary excellence, health and wellness, sustainability and cultures of innovation in retail foodservice.

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