Starters with Selling Power

Tasty and good-looking noshes make the best first impressions with customers—and boost profits for operators. Creativity counts here! Ingredients, presentation and naming: It’s all important. Here’s your connexion to the best appetizers in Canada.

starters cheeseAh, Cheese

So many app menus feature cheese, but it’s the details that make these restaurants stand out. The several western locations of ROCK CREEK TAP AND GRILL cleverly bring cheese to the table: just look at their Very Gouda Spinach Fondue presented with lemon herb crostini, Five Cheese Poutine slathered with Jack Daniel’s peppercorn gravy, and Baked Brie & Berries drizzled with a balsamic berry reduction. In Quebec, there’s a plethora of cheesy choices. Like Brie with Nuts & Onion Chutney courtesy of CAFÉ BISTRO L’ANCESTRAL (Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines), Parmesan Fondue from STRATOS PIZZERIA (several cities), and Croquettes de Mac and Cheese from ODYSSÉE RESTO AMBIANCE (Drummondville).

starters sausage

Mighty Meaty

Protein is always sure to please a hungry crowd, but in combination with beer, it’s worth returning for. LE MOULIN RESTAURANT BAR in Gatineau, Quebec, knows the way to their patrons’ hearts: a platter of sausage made with—and paired with—the products of its in-house microbrewery. Another trendy approach, the ethnic mash-up, sounds especially good when it’s a Moroccan Lamb Spring Roll served with mango chili sauce—a specialty of THE GARRISON PUB & EATERY in Calgary, Alberta.

Wings Take Off

Classic chicken wings are never a bad idea, but many venues are giving them a new spin. In Kitchener, Ontario, LANCASTER SMOKEHOUSE smokes their jumbo wings and teams them with five house-made sauces, including “Fullilove” Hot. A food truck helps spread the wings, and weekend takeout is by appointment only. In Canmore, Alberta, IRON GOAT PUB & GRILL buttermilk-fries their chicken wings; customers choose from a list of sauces and rubs, like Dill Pickle Sour Cream & Onion. The Iron Goat also offers a unique twist: Chipotle Mango Duck Wings. (Check out their online catering menus, too.)

starters seafood

From the Sea

House-smoked mackerel and salmon are on the Smoked Charcuterie Board at BLUE MUSSEL CAFÉ (North Rustico Harbour, P.E.I.). Potatoes and cheese are combined with crab for the signature Crab Cakes, which come with a side of green tomato chow. Local Manitoba fish makes the Pickerel Sticks at LE GARAGE CAFÉ in Winnipeg, as does the “light and crisp” preparation and house tartar sauce. Speaking of “light,” TOBERMORY BREWING CO. & GRILL in Ontario cooks calamari on their namesake grill instead of frying.

Something Different

Beer Bread? “Chicken Lips”? PUMP HOUSE in Moncton, New Brunswick, has plenty of fun—and flavour—on their “Tap’etizers” menu, which also features a “Sorry No Returns” policy on the Hell Fire Wings XXX. And if you’ve never thought of deviled eggs as crispy, that’s how BRUCE STEAKHOUSE of Kincardine, Ontario, makes them, with panko breading. And the RAD BROTHERS of Milton, Ontario, demonstrate a great idea for repurposing basic ingredients: Skillet Sizzler Dip with seasoned ground chuck, roasted peppers, onions, melted cheese blend and corn chips for scooping.

Ways to Boost Appetizer Sales

Make your appetizer menu hard to resist! Then, make a great first impression to ensure repeat business. What’s more, the lines between appetizers, small plates, entrees and sides are blurring—another reason to revisit and possibly increase your list of appetizer options. Some venues are ditching the “appetizers” label altogether. They favour using categories like Warm-Ups, Small Plates and Shareables. Other operators like specific terms, e.g., Flatbreads.

starters 1Be unexpected (yet expected).

This is the place to be creative, so that your offerings are unique and exciting. Yet, the most successful items will be familiar enough that guests know whether they’ll like them.
How to proceed? Test the market! Try different spices and spice blends: like chilis, curry and harissa. Try a range of dipping and drizzling sauces: for example, cilantro-lime for jalapeño poppers. And try swapping expected ingredients for something different, like one venue that serves sushi with smoked duck instead of seafood. Ideas are everywhere, from industry trend reports, to trade shows, to the websites (and dining rooms) of other restaurants.

starters 2Name, describe and plate to entice.

A well-selected name helps sell any appetizer. Like the Salt Spring Island Cheese Boards, featuring locally sourced fine cheeses, at CRACKED PEPPER CATERING in Whistler, British Columbia. On the menu at WAYNE GRETZKY’S TORONTO, the pierogies are spotlighted as “Grandma Gretzky’s favourite!” along with the need-to-know info: “cheddar & potato, caramelized onions, bacon, sour cream.” (Also note their Buffalo Cauliflower Bite, a vegetarian substitute for chicken wings.)

And do make appetizers as attractive as possible; they set the tone for everything that follows. Find interesting and exciting ways to present your offerings, like baskets lined with checkered deli paper. Fun skewers and toothpicks, colourful garnishes, and artful arrangements are easy strategies that ensure every item has a “wow” factor—and help your establishment stand out.

starters 3Create synergy.

You want appetizers that fit your concept. However, why shouldn’t an Italian restaurant serve spring rolls? If they’re filled with beef and rosemary, and ladled with a zesty tomato sauce, you could have a winner! By designing an appetizer list with tasteful pairings of wine, beer and/or cocktails, you’ve also designed a solid profit opportunity.

starters 4Counter the cost.

Creating several shareable platters allows customers to split the bill and lessen the guilt of “spoiling” their meal. Also, happy hour specials give individuals and groups alike a reason to come in—and order some bites to go with their drinks. Wait staff is your ally here: Servers should taste all appetizers so they’re ready to answer questions and encourage customers rather than just take orders. Train servers on how a smile and enthusiasm will boost the check total, and their tip. Back of the house, consult with your foodservice distributor to identify premade items you can customize, and ask for help in determining gross profit on your recipes.