Sharing may be caring, but splitting plates can be a giant headache when diners hack apart a dish so everyone can have a taste. Just ask Chef Jason Myers about the once popular Fancy Burger—a hand-formed beef patty cooked in duck fat, topped with Gruyere and white truffle mayo that he served at his first restaurant in Portland, Oregon. “People wanted it cut into five pieces, but the structural integrity would fall apart if it was cut in more than half,” he says.
For chefs, sharing can compromise the flavors of the dish and mess with food costs. It can also disrupt the flow of the line, complicating plating and increasing the number of plates in the pass. Yet ignoring split plate requests or copping an attitude can mean missing out on revenue. The smart thing to do? Feed the need to share while still turning tables and keeping food costs in check.
Give to Get
Shannon Martincic, executive chef at Bar Noroeste in Seattle, says sharing should be a nonissue. “When people go out for a meal, they want their friends to taste what they’re tasting,” she says. “They want to talk about it, and they want to remember it together. It’s our job to give them that.” For some dishes, the solution to overcoming the hassle of splitting food is simple.
Solution: Design dishes that can withstand being hacked up. These types of dishes accommodate the urge to share without making significant accommodations in the kitchen, says Myers, who opened Basilisk, his latest restaurant in Portland, Oregon, earlier this year. Its signature fried chicken sandwich is served with a steak knife stabbed in the middle, so diners can cut it however they want.
Prevent Portion Disappointment
A diner may think splitting a piece of quiche with the table is a good idea—until the sad one-eighth slice appears. Then the disappointing portion could become the restaurant’s problem, when a diner who leaves hungry vows to never return.
Solution: Train servers to gauge appetites. At Bar Nororeste, server get a sense of how hungry share-happy diners are and then they steer them toward appropriate menu items. For harder to split dishes, such as tacos, Martincic adds extra low-cost items, such as tortillas and salsa, to make sharing easier and the final product more delicious. “The extra details go a long way in making the diner feel special and more willing to come back,” she says.
Sharing is one of the main draws for guests at The Hairy Lobster in Portland, Oregon, but that doesn’t mean all dishes are the same size. “Our plates are meant to be shared between two or three people, while the platters are more substantial and meant to be shared between four and six people,” says co-owner Mellisa Root. Acquainting new diners with the menu—and making sure expectations are in line with what arrives at the table—takes more server time than a standard format. However, that upfront communication, such as explaining why the pork shank with barley and cornbread is twice the size of the barbecue duck with cucumber salad, can prevent an upset later.
Leave It to the Diner
Some split plates just look terrible—especially a rib-eye that’s been robbed of its time to rest, chefs say. Thanks to the ubiquity of social media, more chefs are seeing those sad-looking split plates haunt their online presence.
Solution: Consider adding a split fee. Many restaurants do this “so they can round out the presentation with more food,” says Peter Napathalung, senior manager of market insights for industry research firm Technomic. Other operators are simply ceding the challenge altogether. “I will give diners extra plates and let them share, but I won’t split it,” says Greg Baker, chef at The Refinery, in Tampa, Florida. “Labor is my biggest cost, and when we split a dish, it gets more labor-intensive,” he says.
As the protein gets smaller, it might require more attention during cooking. Ditto plating a petite portion and asking servers to carry twice as many plates for the same amount of money. “I’m basically splitting my margin in half,” Baker says. He’s trained waitstaff to encourage diners to do the work. Servers bring extra plates and utensils to the table but stand firm that the kitchen doesn’t accommodate splitting.
Amp Up Sides
Splitting appetizers is typically encouraged and expected. Restaurants that haven’t beefed up side items may be missing out.
Solution: Create side dishes that span all types of eating preferences. At Basilisk, a la carte sides allow diners to mix and match their sandwich and side, but it also encourages tables to order Myers’ fries, salads and cornbread to share. Playing to that communal mentality can pay off. The $7 Dan Dan fries, served with peanut sauce, chili oil and lime, are only $1 less than the signature chicken sandwich. Ordering both may give a solo diner pause but won’t have the same effect on a crowd.
At Village Whiskey in Philadelphia, the menu features deviled eggs, tater tots and fries for sharing but also a robust lineup of housemade pickles ranging from truffled cauliflower to watermelon and fennel. They’re served family style, with a breadboard and whipped ricotta. “When people go out, they want to share. That’s a big part of the experience,” says Andreas Muller, executive chef of Revival, a family-style restaurant in Decatur, Georgia. “We want to fill tables with all the different things the diner wants to try, have them put whatever looks good on their plate and then box up the leftovers for lunch the next day.”
A writer for a variety of food and business publications, Kate Rockwood is always down with sharing.