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Bar/Comfort Food Brainstorming


turkeybone
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Hey folks,

Well, less than a month out of school, and I've been enlisted at my old restaurant town in the Finger Lakes to save a dying kitchen. This operation owns pretty much all the dining in this small town -- a 10 room lakefront inn, a little pizza dive and my little gorilla, a poorly mismanaged bar with awesomely awesome costs and no sense of self.

Things were pretty bad here. We negotiated my wage Friday morning, and my exec said "alright, well, come in Monday, we'll do a walk through, get you settled in, etc etc". An hour later -- "yeah... can you come in right now? The kitchen manager had to take a personal weekend". When I got there, the General Manager was in the dish pit. This was gonna be fun.

I fixed a lot in those first few days -- just the general cleanliness of the place was horrible. I think I lost a few years of my life breathing in the carbon that got scraped off the grill (which now doesn't spontaneously combust anymore) and hosed out of the deep fryer. Other things also came along, like not being so darned dependent on the tiny little fryalator, so when you get 4 orders for fish fry, the kitchen goes down. Revenue is up a fair amount, but not so much the profits. I dont even want to talk about the liquor side, which at last /guess/, runs about 50% cost or more. Yeah -- that takes skill.

I could go on and on about how I'm trying to turn this little place around, but my attention is now set on the menu, which needs some serious attention and inspiration. We're talking a few different burgers, some wraps, some crappy salads (baby carrots and green peppers is the 'garden salad'). Mostly SYSCO-junk for the fried food.. but at least the fries are hand cut and good.. well once I taught people how to blanch them properly.

So... finally, the point. It's fallen on me to develop a new menu. The mitigating factors: Across the street is the small country inn that we also own, so it has to be a bit cheaper and not really in direct competition (though thats from above, competition is always good in my book). There's another "american bistro" a few miles up the road, so it needs to be a little more sophisticated and focused than that place. Also, there's a large population of locals and regulars, so the food needs to be relatively approachable.

My mental soundbyte has been "regional american brewpub comfort food". Im sure that means a lot of things to a lot of people, so I'd love to hear what you all think that means. I get a lot of my inspiration from Bradley Ogden's stuff -- that's where I'm coming from. I'd love to do some homemade sausages, beer pairings on the menu -- I dont know if they could handle a beer and cheese plate, but who knows. Ive run bbq with plenty of success, people eat up the coleslaw, mac and cheese, catfish.. a lot of the new england stuff too.

Anyway, its pretty obvious I do like to ramble, which is why getting these ideas together in my own head is hard enough as it is!

I've been pretty absent from egullet since the CIA sucked up most of my time, but I'd love to come back with presenting one man's quest to turn this dive into a gem.

Rico

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Rico,

Sorry, I'm not familiar with the area, other than that it's upstate.  What sort of dining audience do you have to work for?  Big seasonal changes, or constant?

It's about a half hour drive from Ithaca, which is a large college-town with a Hotel school and a very, very active food culture. So, in one way thats good because the interest in food is there, but not so good in that people wont always be willing to drive a half hour for what they have in front of them. The restaurant itself is in another, smaller college town with a small local populace. The seasonal changes are large -- the winter is pretty cold and snowy, and the summers are warm and very pleasant. A fair amount of business comes from tourists traveling the lake, or wine touring, or visting local high-end furniture shops and the like. Across the street at the main restaurant/inn, the prices go from $16 (pot roast) to $38 (surf and turf). Right now the prices over here are about $7 bucks for burgers and most other things.

Rico

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Gastropub is the safest, in the good definition of the word, which is make solid, comfortable food.

Now that the grill isn't doing the spontaneous combustion thing (although you could've got some X-Files tours to schedule you in for that!), then you're covered on the basic burger demand. If you could really push the fries - heck, you could spin them as"frites" (can you get beef fat for the frying?) although that gets a bit pretentious. When I was at Modern Burger in Vancouver they had a continual line-up out the door, and they were sticking to basics done right.

What's local and good? Get your food costs down a bit while making things out as a terroir approach (I know, it sounds cynical, but it could work out)? Given the clientelle, you don't want to go avante-garde. If they want to experiment, they've got the place across the street.

British-style meat pies? They give you a fair bit of freedom of ingredients (and they keep well enough). They work well in the cold months.

As you allude, you can get people to drive an hour-and-a-half to try something different, but after that it won't be different (and they probably won't come back).

You've probably gone through all these already, but it's an interesting project to think around.

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My husband and I are always on the look-out for finger food platters to share when having a couple of drinks. Something that doesn't require two hands or a knife/fork - need a free hand for the drink :biggrin: . Mini springs rolls are good (if homemade), wedges to dip in a couple of sauces, perhaps a variety of mini-meat pies to introduce your new range of flavours, like a sampler. I'm not sure how wide spread meat pies are in the states but here each variety can be identified by some sort of difference in the top of the pie, for example an extra diamond of pastry or two leaves or three cuts across the top etc, that way you know you're getting the pie you want.

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In my humble opinion, the first step in the rebuilding process is to determine what clientele you are trying to serve. Is it college kids, locals, tourists, or a combination.

I believe each would dictate a different approach and pricing strategy.

If its locals you are after, stick to the traditionals and do them well.

Being in NY, it would seem Buffalo Hot Wings would be a necessity.

Thick, rich soups and stews (maybe served in a "bread bowl") are also very popular.

Seafood Fritters, breaded mushrooms, fried chicken etc. are all good.

Don't forget cold sandwiches.

Grilled chicken breast with lettuce, tomato, avocado and mayo served on a grilled baguette with a good salad is a great combo.

If you are doing burgers, enhance their flavor with a little ground sirloin and you will become "known for your great burgers".

A great salad costs little more than a mediocre salad but will bring many kudo's especially from the women.

If you want to attract the college kids, follow the latest trends and serve them.

Another good draw with the college crowd is to offer a "free if you can eat it all" type product. For example, a B & G in Texas offers a giant hamburger (maybe 3 pounds or more?) that is free if you can eat it all, or you pay full price. Needless to say, very few can eat it all, but it is a great draw gimmick.

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I dont even want to talk about the liquor side, which at last /guess/, runs about 50% cost or more. Yeah -- that takes skill.

How do you run 50% cost on liquor :wacko:. Do you run after your suppliers vans throwing large wads of cash at them?

Is there any particular ethnic regionality where you're are? Brewpub fare varies all around europe and it might be nice to reflect a particular region. Sausages and cabbage and potatos and schnitzel for bavaria, meat pies and thick chips and fried fish and beef sausages for england. Coq a vin and Bourginon and Steak Frites for France etc. Make it rustic, make it homey and give it a sense of identity and people will come. Don't try to be too cutesy with it or explicitly draw notice to it, just stick to the tried and true combinations that have been worked out over centuries.

PS: I am a guy.

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coming back to this, I was going through the shelves, and, if it was me having a beer somewhere, I would be very happy with anything from Fergus Henderson's Nose To Tail.

I'm not saying take the recipes. I'm saying review the writing, and look at what the good Mr. Fergus is saying about food. Not only would it make for very good grub, but it'd be fun, too.

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I dont even want to talk about the liquor side, which at last /guess/, runs about 50% cost or more. Yeah -- that takes skill.

How do you run 50% cost on liquor :wacko:. Do you run after your suppliers vans throwing large wads of cash at them?

Yeah, I was going to say, you need to get that liquor cost under control, pronto, or it won't matter what kind of food your serving. As they say in the 'biz, "There are 2 kinds of bartenders: Those that are smart and only steal a little bit, and those that just go ahead and steal a lot." It looks like you have the latter. Start counting the drawer yourself.

Other than that, the suggestions made so far are excellent. Meat pies, braised meats and stews, good fries and sausages are all great ideas for pub grub with a good beer. Try not to be too ambitious at first, because poorly executing a spectacularly creative menu is not nearly so successful as just being able to put out a good burger.

Good luck!

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I would second what everyone else has said tradtional food, made extremely well. I belive you can build a reputation on an excellent burger and good fries. For repeat clienatal with this style food you dont want to be avant garde, you need affordable food that they want to come back for often.

As for that liquor cost, there are 3 options, undercharging, extra strong, or theft as a former pub owner I would guess all three. Vigilance and weekly inventories oh and a great computer system really help.

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Adding to all of the above, one of our longtime local places has a particular special for each day of the week. It helps predict what kind of par to have on-hand, makes the labor semi-predictable and draws different crowds different days to balance the take. They do pretty standard bar food but do it very well, using well-known local 'premium' ingredients (e.g. their hot dogs are from a local sausage maker and identified as such on the menu) and with some unusual twists (sticking with the hot dog example, they have IIRC 5 treatments including a chili-topped, a swiss & mushrooms, a standard 'Merican dog, etc). That might allow you to branch-out a bit without your standard menu getting too unwieldy.

Judy Jones aka "moosnsqrl"

Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.

M.F.K. Fisher

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TB,

Congrats on getting the new gig.

Can you post some pics and the current menu for your place and the inn?

~C

Edited by C_Ruark (log)
"There's something very Khmer Rouge about Alice Waters that has become unrealistic." - Bourdain; interviewed on dcist.com
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I agree with most of the others simple food done well (especially burgers/hot dogs)

some other options with a little twist:

Wings w/raspberry chipotle sauce

Fish & Chips - w/ special tarter sauce (jalapenos, capers...)

Sausage/keilbasa platter w/red cabbage and brown bread served with several types of mustard

soup/chili/stew in a bread bowl

Pierogies - twist on the fillings

Grilled cheese - different bread & cheeses/fillings

Panini - tons of options

French onion soup

Po' Boy's

One of our favorites at a local place - rock shrimp - lightly breaded & fried (like tempura) served in a bowl with olive oil, lemon, garlic and crushed red pepper.

That and a loaf of bread for sopping up the sauce - yum!

If you are trying to cater to families - one place we go to serves the kids meal in a frisbee and ice cream is included in the price (usually an ice cream sandwich). If the kids are happy the parents are happy.

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Thanks for all the replies, guys. Your ideas are all great, and have been pretty helpful. I'm going today to hammer out the finalities of the menu I've been working on. I'll snag some pictures today or tomorrow, too, so you can see what I'm workin with.

Yeah, the liquor cost is amazingly crazy, I know. We brought someone in to put the smack down (someone that was already kicking around the company, not an outsider).. someone was already let go within a day or two of that, heh. There were plenty of little issues with the booze -- no real inventory, the right prices not being charged, a little MICROS hell trying to even find half the things, all sorts of different sized glasses, oh and of course staff being liberal with the definition of "shift drink".

It's funny, as soon as I got out of school, I thought to myself "I can't go back and work at X, the first thing Id want to do is change everything." But instead X calls me and says "hey, Y is in the weeds, we want you to come bail it out".

Anyway, the bar/grill across the street doesn't have a website just yet, but the sister restaurant is here:

www.aurora-inn.com

Luckily, our baker sends us cakes and stuff over, so dessert is a no brainer.. some of the best carrot cake Ive ever had... mmm.

Anyway, I'll let you guys know what happens, we're going to present our menu ideas to the big boss sometime this week.

Rico

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We have burger bars here that serve beef burgers, lamb burgers, turkey and chicken burgers with interesting sauces like:

Chimichurri

Pesto

Aioli

Tehina

Red pepper sauce

Maybe you could make different sauces and offer them with your burgers. They are simple to make.

You could also serve cornish pasty or meat pies or pot pies.

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If I recall, the Finger Lakes area seems to have some decent local vinters on the Cayuga Wine Trail. Perhaps you can get get involved and do a small wine-paired menu section?

"There's something very Khmer Rouge about Alice Waters that has become unrealistic." - Bourdain; interviewed on dcist.com
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My brother and his wife owned a restaurant for a time. Actually it was a midwest-styled supper club that had a bit of a focus on comfort food. I was always surprised at how popular chicken and dumplings was for them. It would pack the restaurant on Tuesday nights, particularly in the cold winter. One of those dishes that really isn't hard to make but people many just don't. Folks in these parts probably identify it with family meals from their not-so-distant pasts.

Stephen Bunge

St Paul, MN

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