Satiating The Insatiable Diner

How to ensure big appetites get their fill

Ravenous. Voracious. Hearty. However you describe them, diners with big appetites arrive at restaurants looking to be fed—a lot.

They’re the same diners who look askance at dainty portions of protein, who ask about the size of a special before placing an order, who embrace the breadbasket with gusto. It’s easy to assume that insatiable diners only frequent buffets and all-you-can-eat deals, but that thinking would be off base. 

“Consumers today are looking for a variety of options on menus, so they can get exactly what they want depending on the eating occasion and customize their meal,” says Annika Stensson, director of research communications at the National Restaurant Association. 

For every health-conscious diner who’s hoping for a half-portion, there’s a bigger appetite that doesn’t mind paying a premium to fill up. To balance hearty appetites against the bottom line: Think beyond one-size-fits-all portions, and deploy simple strategies that help hungry diners get truly fed.

“What we’re seeing more of is staggered portions on menus nationwide,” says Mary Chapman, formerly of food research firm Technomic Inc. 

Eighty-six percent of diners in a Technomic survey said they’d be more likely to visit a restaurant with substantial and filling portions. Yet nearly as many diners rated staggered portions as an important value-driven consideration over large portions. Younger diners dig the appeal of creating a customized meal: 65 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds are willing to pay more for large portions, and 46 percent are willing to splurge for more protein. This means satisfying these hungry diners can also feed your bottom line.

“Someone should be able to come in, get fed and leave full,” says Kelly Whitaker, chef-owner of Denver-based restaurants Cart-Driver and Basta. “You don’t want a guest paying a $150 bill and then asking where the closest In-N-Out Burger is for the drive home.”

Dare to Share

Shared plates may feel so 2011, but their flexible format appeals to more than one demographic. 

At Basta, the $82 scratch-made lasagna requires 24-hour notice but still gets ordered multiple times a week. Though the menu suggests the dish for “four to six people,” Whitaker’s seen tables of two order the mammoth dish. “Some people know they want to bring most of it home for lunch the next day; others are just hungry,” he says. 

Diners aren’t the only ones satisfied. Shareable plates are a back-of-house boon. “With large format, one serving of beef takes care of four guests, instead of four individual servings,” Whitaker says. “That really offsets the load of the line.”

Beef It Up

In Duluth, Minnesota, hundreds of made-from-scratch diner meals are served daily at The Duluth Grill. To avoid overwhelming an already bustling line with staggered portions, the restaurant relies on add-ons like a half-pound, grass-fed beef burger, lamb shank gyros, grilled kale and bacon-blue cheese coleslaw. “We don’t title anything hearty or lighter, but that’s an easy way to adjust your portion size,” says co-owner Tom Hanson.

Bulk doesn’t always have to be served on the side, either. When Matt Selby was the chef at Denver’s Central Bistro & Bar, he created a protein menu for those looking to beef up a meal. “People add seared salmon or housemade bacon or grilled steak to everything,” says Selby, who recently launched a restaurant consulting business. “The protein add-on increases check averages, and it helps the guest feel like they got enough to eat.”

Show Me the Bread Basket

Waist-watchers know to avoid the breadbasket’s siren song, but offering that mountain of carbs can be a win-win for everyone: It fills diners up without dramatically driving up food costs. 

To reduce wasted money on tables that aren’t going to touch it, Chef-owner Christy Hayes of Woodland, California-based Mojo’s Kitchen428, has a simple solution: Ask first. “We ask every table if they want bread, after they order,” she says. “A lot of people are staying away from bread these days, or they want more of the food instead of the filler. But for others, they really have to have it.”

Offer up top-notch bread, and you can charge for it. At Tremont 647, in Boston, Chef-owner Andy Husbands replaced the complimentary baskets of focaccia with $7 skillet cornbread. It helps slash food waste without shrinking the average check order. “We see people ordering it as an appetizer sometimes, but mainly as an accompaniment with their dinners,” he says.

The Art of Selling

“Portion sizes are different everywhere, and guests are becoming more savvy about asking,” Whitaker says. For restaurateurs, that means arming the front-of-house staff with the proper intel to help hungry diners order appropriate portions.

“As soon as a new menu is typed up, the sous chef does a class with the servers and goes over the ins and outs of each menu item,” says Selby. The debrief goes so far as to offer the exact ounces of the protein or amount of pasta served with each dish. 

“With the right menu knowledge, servers can custom fit any part of the menu to someone’s appetite,” he says. 

If a diner is hungry and eyeing the primi pastas, for instance, a server might suggest the entree pasta instead. If a diner asks about the flatbreads, the servers know that one flatbread is an ideal snack, while three work as a starter for a table of eight.

“It’s really all about reading the guests,” says Selby. “Solid communication can be the difference between someone leaving disappointed and someone feeling fed well.”

Kate Rockwood is a freelance writer and insatiable diner.

Portion Perception

Make a serving seem bigger—even when it’s not.

1. Downsize your plates. Researchers at Cornell University have found that people tend to underestimate
the portion size of larger plates, thus eating more and feeling less satisfied with a meal. 

2. Brag before you serve. Diners expect smaller delicacies, not dump trucks of food, with premium ingredients like locally raised protein or heirloom vegetables. Set expectations before they see the portion size to shift their perspective and minimize disappointment.

3. Go tall and slim. Here’s a reason to rethink your short, squat barware: People perceive tall-stemmed glasses as larger, food researchers have found.

4. Intensify the flavor. Food that’s smoky, spicy or intensely flavored can have a greater impact on a diner’s palate and cause them eat more slowly, even if the portion is somewhat modest.

5. Plate with circles. The Delboeuf illusion causes us to perceive something as larger when it’s surrounded by a tight circle. Keep that in mind next time you’re finishing a plate with a garnish or sauce.

6. Stretch it out. If $40-per-pound morel mushrooms are killing your food cost, consider cutting the recipe with a less expensive variety. You’ll still get the flavor and balance costs without shrinking the portions.