Share plates: 
How we got here

Image source: Rocker Bondi

When costs rise, other things shrink, like the size of your staff, venue, and meals. Tony Eldred reflects on how portions, plating and prices have changed in the last few decades.

When I first entered the industry in the 1960s, the high-end restaurants were mostly following the same traditional dish structure of a substantial slab of protein with two or three vegetables on one plate. Today, it’s smaller portions, and “everything is designed to share,” as your server will tell you. But it’s not just the boundary-pushing chefs at the top with their puree smears and spherified liquids that dictate industry trends.

Back in the ‘60s, restaurants hit resistance when rising costs forced main-course prices to reach the $15 barrier (how things have changed). The solution was to start taking things off the plate and presenting them as “side dishes”. This allowed a price rise by stealth, as customers often ordered several side dishes at $5 or $6 each and ended up spending $25 or more on a meal. The public saw this as fashionable and the trend spread like wildfire.

Costs continued to rise and further changes became necessary. The first of these was the shrinking of protein portions. Savvy chefs discovered that if they halved the size of the protein, they could pile on a cheaper vegetables or grains, and, success! The majority of diners hardly noticed.

Nevertheless the average price of restaurant meals continued to hike and restaurateurs struggled to present the perception of value – especially when they reached the $25 barrier. Something had to change.

This was when secondary cuts started to share the limelight because initially they were much cheaper than premium cuts. For example, when a lamb shank costs a fraction of the price of a steak, it becomes a much more profitable alternative. But, as always, due to demand those cheaper cuts became more and more expensive to the point where all kinds of bits and pieces that usually went into pies or sausages were appearing on restaurant plates. These protein items were not usually suitable for plain grilling, so the nature of dishes evolved to encompass slow-cooked menu items.

But restaurateurs were still experiencing rising costs and falling profits, and some started to recognise the inherent limitations of the entree, main and dessert menu structure. Customers began to baulk at $19 entrees with homeopathic quantities of ingredients and trade began to suffer.

The spotlight then moved to beverage pricing, and the margins placed on wines and other alcohols started to rise substantially.

During my time in the industry, wine margins have increased from 80 per cent up to 250 per cent. This saw the disappearance of big-name commercial wines and the prevalence of boutique wines that the public did not recognise.

Then, a decade or so ago, intense competition and dwindling profits led to the next major change in menu structure – the advent of share plates.

These replaced the old three-course menu and provided the two-fold benefit of hiding necessary price increases and encouraging the public to eat a variety of smaller dishes, thus inadvertently spending more. On top of this, the increased dining time provided a boost to beverage income. Income was further boosted by expanding the range of wines offered by the glass, sold at a relatively high margin.

Incidentally, this was also when some brave restaurants adopted a no-bookings policy, in order to thwart the economic loss from no-shows and late customers. So menu structure, beverage structure and booking policies have all evolved against competition and rising costs in an environment that is acutely sensitive to price increases.

Although innovation and creativity has a lot to do with public recognition and acclaim in this industry, it doesn’t command all trends. The maintenance of appropriate profitability however, has been the main driver of changes we have seen over the last 50 years. Business operators don’t tend to make radical changes unless they have to, and of course imminent bankruptcy is a fierce motivator.

This article was first published in foodservice's May 2019 issue. Read the digital magazine here.