Restaurant Owners: Are Your Portions Too Large?

Today, smaller portions of high-quality food make for happier customers (and bigger profits).
Adding special touches to enhance the look of a dish can help appeal to the eyes of customers. (Photo: Olha Afanasieva/Shutterstock)

Some chefs think filling a plate to the brim with food demonstrates value to the customer. But if half the entrée ends up in a doggy bags or worse, in the trash, there go your profits.


“Chefs should take note that many customers are taking their health in their own hands and are seeing value in things other than the weight of the plate.” – Chef Ken Immer (Photo: Ken Immer)

Diners today aren’t necessarily impressed by large portions. Your guests may not even want the amount of food you’re serving.

“In days past, we wanted to feel as if we were getting a lot for our money,” said Ken Immer, a former chef and now president of Culinary Health Solutions. Chefs responded by serving up portions large enough, in some cases, for an extra meal. But, said, Immer, “That’s changing.”

“Chefs should take note that many customers are taking their health in their own hands and are seeing value in things other than the weight of the plate,” such as the nutritional content of the food, its taste and texture and where the food comes from.

Immer offered these tips for getting your portions right while maximizing plate appeal and profits.

Watch for signs you’re overfeeding customers

Chefs may not notice that half of every chicken marsala served goes uneaten — but employees who take care of the leftovers do.

“If the trash can is filling up quickly when the waiters send plates to the dish room, it’s an indicator that people aren’t eating it all.”

Another sign: You’re ordering too many take-out containers. This means a lot of people are taking food with them, said Immer. Take-out containers also cost money. And fetching and filling them slows down table turnover.

Build a menu of buzzwords

If you’re serving less food, show customers the value of what they’re getting with buzzwords and high-quality ingredients, said Immer.

“This is where paying attention to food trends is really important. “There is growing desire for local food and artisanal types of food,” said Immer. He added, “There’s quality in the craftsmanship of food. People are willing to pay for that.”

Highlight the name of the farm that produced one of the ingredients to make the ingredient seem hand-selected, advised Immer. “It will raise the value of the dish and restaurants can charge the appropriate price, and make more money on the plate.”

Other things customers care about are seasonal and organic foods, dietary trends (like vegan or gluten-free), nutritional value and whether specialty foods, such as cheese and sauces, are made in-house.

“If the mozzarella cheese on the salad is handmade, make sure that customers know. The whole dish doesn’t have to be handmade and artisanal, one piece of it can be highlighted and people are willing to pay for that.”

Educate servers about the menu

Make sure your servers are well versed in the virtues of the menu and can talk about attributes such as seasonality and local sourcing.

If they can highlight something special about a dish, such as the just-picked berries from a farm down the road or the house-made pickles, customers will cherish the flavors and experience rather than the portion size.

Appeal to the eye

Beautiful plating is crucial when you’re serving less food. Embrace your inner Picasso and plate a masterpiece that wows customers on their first glimpse.

“Obviously texture and color have a huge role to play. People are sometimes using a little paintbrush to paint a coulis or a thicker sauce on a plate to make an interesting design that has some texture to it.”

Consider adding something indulgent for looks and also to satisfy your customers’ guilty pleasures. “A little bit of something fried on the top of even the most healthful dish doesn’t take away from its perceived healthiness, but it can add a texture element that is attractive,” said Immer.

Finally, use color to make less food look like more. “If you have a monochrome dish, a spot use of color can be very effective when there’s light space on the plate. Recognize that less is more — but you can’t take it all out.”

Use tools to guide portion size

You may need to use tricks to make sure everyone who plates food is using the same (smaller) portion sizes.

“There are certain tools that we use in the kitchen to ensure portion sizes, like certain scoops and spoons and molds,” said Immer. “If a chef is trying to change his culture a little bit, using the portion scoop when normally it was OK to use any old kitchen spoon, that can be a way of making people used to serving a new size.”

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