Put an egg on it. Sauce on the side. Extra meat, hold the cheese. Gluten-free bun.

The swelling ranks of orders with exceptions have become the norm for many restaurant operators. The trend has become ingrained in the dining experience, thanks to pizza, burrito and sandwich fast-casual operators that allow customers to specify their favorite fillings, condiments, breads, grains, proteins and more.


Creating Originals

Some guests request substitutions out of necessity – food allergies or religious preferences, for example – while many others do it because they want meals prepared to their specifications.

A healthy chunk of today’s guests would go even further. They relish the chance to create their own originals. Nearly half of consumers under 34 said they would welcome self-serve, build-your- own sandwich bars, and 40% to 45% would welcome more do-it-yourself options at quick-service and fast-casual restaurants. Millennials are particularly pro-customization and most likely to associate it with good value, according to Technomic.1

For full-service restaurant operators, the initial reaction to these kinds of figures might be “Awesome! I can trim my staff!” If only it were that simple.

“Having guests do their own thing sometimes becomes a free-for-all,” says Neil Doherty, Senior Director of Culinary Development for Sysco.

With few exceptions, food cost and food safety both go out the window when the staff relinquishes control of ingredients.

But if self-serve isn’t the answer, how can an operator satisfy the desire for a customized experience without causing delays in service and havoc in the kitchen?

Curated choices, mix of portions

A relatively simple way to personalize an order is to offer a choice of sides. A patron who knows they can have their favorite sweet potato fries or won’t need to settle for white rice when they really wanted brown will feel more in control, which is ultimately the point.


Several portion options offer another customization angle. Borrowing a page from quick-service restaurants, some operators serve burgers and steaks in several sizes along with half and full sandwiches, salads and entrées. Mixing up the options allows consumers to customize meals to suit their budgets and their appetites. Flexible portion sizes also provide a relatively simple tweak to a menu, although they don’t really cut down on labor. For example, something like a mixed slider trio, with three different proteins, probably has the opposite effect.


Charging for extras – extra condiments or adding cheese, avocado and other premium ingredients – is growing more common among restaurants. And it can be justified, particularly when the addons are house-made or otherwise out of the ordinary. For restaurants with a price sensitive clientele, the alternative is to set prices that will cover nearly every potential variation and still make a plate profitable.

Some casual restaurants have adopted a “choose one item from column A, one from B and one from C” menu approach to satisfy choosy eaters and give everyone ultimate control over what ends up on the table. But many restaurant guests, rightly so, believe they’re paying to enjoy the chef’s idea of a delicious meal. A balance – leaving one portion of the menu to the guest’s discretion and trusting experts in the kitchen with the rest – presents a reasonable compromise that should make everyone happy.


Streamline the Menu

It might seem counterintuitive, but one strategy to allow more customization is to reduce the number of menu choices. There are many arguments for streamlining a menu, not the least of which is operational efficiency. A shorter menu simplifies production so special requests don’t bog the line down as much. It also allows a restaurant staff to concentrate on what they do well instead of being distracted by trying to execute a complicated menu.

“A streamlined menu gives operators a better chance at being successful and consistent with every dish on the menu,” says Dawn Fitzgerald, Sysco’s Senior Director of Marketing Services. “When a menu is too large it not only puts strain on your food costs and your kitchen, it creates a lot of room for mistakes and lapses in quality control.”

A shorter list also frees up menu real estate for more complete product descriptions, which in turn yield more orders. Research has shown that well-described items command a higher price, too.2

“We encourage customers who come to us for menu help to be as descriptive as possible, even calling out how the dish is prepared,” Fitzgerald says. “That allows a restaurant to convey the quality of the dish, the texture, flavor and more.”

Fitzgerald and the Sysco Menu Services team work with operators to conduct a comprehensive menu analysis and engineering exercise, analyzing plate costs and charting the profitability and sales of each dish to determine which ones are keepers.

“We’ll say, ‘These are the dishes you need to concentrate on, because they are the most popular with your customers and are the most profitable,’” Fitzgerald explains.

TIP: A Sysco Business Review can identify potential ways to keep a lid on food costs while still allowing recipe variations. Ask your marketing associate about scheduling one with your local operating company.

Getting Front and Back of House on Board

Operators that do allow substitutions and customization need to set up some ground rules for servers and kitchen staff.

“Customizing slows down and affects the quality of the overall concept,” Doherty says. “Sometimes there is so much freestyling going on that a restaurant gets away from what the menu intended.”

Going off-recipe to accommodate a special request can throw carefully managed food costs out of whack as well.

Food and drink aren’t the only aspects of the dining experience that can be customized, either. Technology, in the form of kiosks and tablets that provide patrons more information about what’s in their food, allows them to order exactly what they crave and puts them in the driver’s seat. Technology can also speed up checks and the cash out process, allowing guests to leave when they wish instead of being held hostage by a less-than-responsive server. Delivery, which allows customers to enjoy food when and where they desire, is another opportunity for customization.

Finally, a “no substitutions” policy might not fly for the average restaurant, but it could work for a portion of the menu – value-driven, popular items such as snacks, appetizers or meal deals.