Super Spring Foods to Make Your Menu a Standout This Season

April 21st, 2014

It was a long winter for most of the country, so we’re more than happy to usher in spring and its bounty of fresh ingredients! And with US VegWeek 2014, a week (April 21-27) dedicated to exploring the benefits of vegetarian eating kicking off today, we thought it would be the perfect time to highlight some spring dish ideas utilizing the season’s best harvests.

As you (and your chefs) busily prepare spring menu concepts, let vibrant greens (artichokes, arugula, asparagus, baby peas, brussels sprouts, collard greens, cucumbers, dandelion greens, kale & spinach) and reds (beets, cherry tomatoes, radishes, ramps, red bell peppers, red-leaf cabbage, rhubarb & strawberries) standout this season.

Here are some spring-inspired dish options to serve as a starting point:

  • A delicious blend of grilled spring mushrooms, asparagus, and cherry tomatoes tossed over fresh pasta with an accent of fresh garlic, white wine, and freshly-shaved Parmesan.
  • Try working the buzz-worthy ramp (aka wild leeks) into dishes this season by tossing into fresh pasta, mixing into spring vegetable tarts or slicing over fresh greens such as mesclun, radicchio and/or arugula, to add an onion/garlic-like flavor to dishes.
  • Give vibrant, fresh beets a lift and serve with finely sliced red onion and toss with an olive oil vinaigrette.
  • Create a spring bean salad complete with cannellini and/or fava beans, sliced asparagus and radish, chopped pea shoots and finely chopped scallions, fennel and/or basil, tossed in a lemon and mustard vinaigrette. Finish with a pinch of red pepper flakes for some unexpected heat.
  • Chop crisp dandelion greens and top with a sliced hard-boiled egg, then finish with a light, citrusy lemon vinaigrette. The citrus will enhance the flavors of this dish.
  • Sauté spring-fresh green beans and sugar snap peas with freshly chopped garlic, or top lightly fried brussels sprouts with fresh red onion, cucumber, and blue cheese.

As the warmer spring breezes blow, food preparation techniques and dressings of the season lighten up for meals that won’t weigh heavy on the plate or presentation. So, try lighter cooking styles, such as grilling, broiling, and poaching, and using extra-virgin olive oil-based dressings, marinades, and pestos featuring fresh citrus elements and flavorful herbs to help usher in the season.

For further inspiration, visit Epicurious and RealTimeFarms for local spring harvest information and produce availability.


Stocking the Perfect Bar for Your Restaurant, Part II: Wine + Beer

April 19th, 2014

As part of our “Stocking the Perfect Bar” series, last month we covered essential spirits, elixirs, cordials, and other specialty types of liquors that can help your bar and your restaurant business flourish. This month, we asked Molly Horn, Head Bartender at Farmers Fishers Bakers in Washington, D.C., to highlight some best practices for wine lists and bar programs.

Our goal for this bar-centric series is to offer helpful guidelines to achieving higher sales and increasing the appeal of your overall bar program, while showcasing the spirits you offer, along with compelling wine lists + bar offerings – a program, if you will – for guests to enjoy the best possible bar experience in your establishment. Here are some of Molly’s recommendations:

Wine: what goes on the list? The objective here is to offer a great selection of traditional favorites that can complement most dishes, along with introducing a few new, local offerings of your choice to catch a guest’s eye or interest.

For traditional regional whites, Molly recommends these primary selections: sauvignon blanc (New Zealand, California, Bordeaux), pinot grigio (Oregon, Italy), riesling (Washington, Alsace, Germany), and chardonnay (Napa and Burgundy). As for traditional regional reds, Molly suggests: pinot noir (California, Oregon), temperanillo (Spain), malbec (California, Argentina), merlot (California, South America), cabernet sauvignon (California, Bordeaux), and zinfandel (California or Australia).

Include these traditional white and red favorites while rotating in a few unique and interesting local wines on a regular basis to add some flair and tempt guests to try a new varietal with their meal.

Beer:  it’s not just about bottles anymore! A good beer program can be as simple as utilizing six dedicated draught lines and one seasonally rotating beer, to showcasing over 20 regular selections on tap at any given time. The development depends on your vision, but the most important aspect of any good beer program, says Molly, is that the beer selections reflect the integrity of the bar program as a whole. For example, if you use top-shelf spirits, take the same measures with your beer selections.

To build your beer program, Molly recommends starting with a good light beer, such as a Kolsch or a Pilsner, balanced with a big, hoppy IPA and a medium-bodied local Amber, like a good wheat-driven Hefeweisen. She also suggests adding items such as a fun, seasonal beer (like an imperial stout in the winter or a spiced ale in the fall), as well as local microbrews to support area producers and distributors.  She always recommends having beers available on tap – it’s a much more economical way to receive, store, and serve your beers. But if space is an issue, consider a mix of tap lines and bottled or can selections.

The References: more to learn! Always a great go-to series for beginners, Molly suggests Wine for Dummies and Beer for Dummies, as well as Karen Macneil’s The Wine Bible.

Get Your Grilled Cheese On! Celebrate this American Classic Year Round

April 9th, 2014

Unless you’re a diehard Grilled Cheese fan, you may have not been aware that April 12 was ‘National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day.’ Yes, there is a day set aside to mark this auspicious American classic – and there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy this delicious sandwich type regularly.

Legend has it that the grilled cheese sandwich made its mark on U.S. menus in the 1920s when inexpensive cheese and conveniently sliced bread became readily available. And since then, the tasty, gooey goodness of the grilled cheese sandwich has become a staple in cafés, diners, local eateries, and school cafeterias across the country, and has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts, hitting the menus in gourmet establishments with variations on that basic theme.

Considering America’s love of the grilled cheese sandwich, think about featuring the traditional classic of sliced white bread + American cheese melted in butter on the menu in your establishment … or if it’s there already, switch up the traditional presentation by creating a version that shows off your eatery’s culinary signature.

For example, if you serve classic American fare, craft a grilled cheese featuring a killer combination of gruyere, white cheddar, and muenster cheeses on freshly grilled, scratch-made sliced white bread. Or if your guests crave authentic Italian, try a prosciutto, mozzarella, fresh basil, and plum tomato sandwich on freshly baked ciabatta or foccacia bread. If your menu offerings include some heat, add diced jalapeño or poblano peppers or a spicy red pepper puree dipping sauce to a monterey or pepper jack grilled cheese flatbread sandwich. No matter what, it should reflect the culinary inspiration for your place in a unique way.

As for sides, the classic pairing of a grilled cheese sandwich and fresh tomato soup enhances the flavors of each, but don’t stop there. Try a pairing of hand-cut potato chips or French fries, a small, chopped spring green salad or a medley of fresh berries for something different.

Let local flavors and your culinary tastes guide you as the possibilities are not only delicious, but offer a great excuse for guests to gather and enjoy this American classic for lunch, dinner or a late-night snack. It’s comfort food at its finest!


Stocking the Perfect Bar for Your Restaurant: Spirits

March 28th, 2014

With the ever-growing popularity of specialty cocktail menus and a push for more creativity behind the bar, restaurant and bar guests are seeking out unique bar concepts and services. If your restaurant, café, lounge or eatery has a defined bar area, there are some key steps to create the right stock list of spirits, elixirs, cordials, and other specialty types of liquors that can help your bar and your restaurant business flourish.

As the bar is often the first place guests gather and/or wait for a table, it’s important to make their first impression and interaction a great one. So, steer clear of anything that’s not an inviting, well-designed, well-kept designated area that reflects dedication to giving guests an amazing bar experience.

To learn how to achieve higher sales and increase the appeal of your bar offerings with a smartly stocked bar, we turned to Molly Horn, Head Bartender at Farmers Fishers Bakers, for some guidelines and tips that will help showcase products and put your bar menu in a whole new light.

The Spirits. These are the superstars of the bar. There are six great base spirits that are a must, says Molly: vodka, gin, rum, tequila, bourbon, and rye. Pair these with high quality modifiers and elixirs, such as Curaçao or triple sec, to enhance the flavor of the spirit. Aperitifs should also be on hand, such as Aperol and Campari; include digestifs, such as a good ruby port and a quality cognac; and don’t forget about classic cordials, such as Crème de Violette, Allspice Dram, Maraschino, and Domaine de Canton.

The Classics. These are the foundations of any good, worthwhile bar menu. Rooted in standard spirits, simple ingredients, and traditional techniques, classic cocktails and the proper technique yield better results than having a large menu or list of disparate, confounding drinks or cocktails with complicated techniques or labor-intensive preparations. Molly suggests a head bartender have a masterful knowledge and the ability to create classics such as a Manhattan, Old-Fashioned, Martini, and Sazerac. Guests will order them!

The Glassware. Drinking a perfectly executed Manhattan out of a water glass won’t ruin it, but it will certainly diminish the experience and the intended presentation that the recipe should call for. Molly recommends four valuable glassware categories to help elevate cocktails from good to great: the champagne coupe (she recommends the Leopold Coupe), the single old fashioned, the double old fashioned, and the Collins glass.

The Tools & Accessories. The accouterments are just as important in achieving an amazing bar experience as the cocktails themselves and are essential for skillful preparation. Molly recommends starting with a jigger, as this small, nimble measuring tool is crucial to creating a consistent cocktail that matches a recipe. Then, add a nice long stirring spoon, a set of metal-on-metal shaker tins (these tend to last longer/are safer in high-volume environments than their glass-on-metal counterparts), a Hawthorne strainer (fits over top of shaker tin), a julep strainer (to strain stirred drinks), and a small garnish knife. Lastly, ice cubes (try a 2”x2” tray mold) are a vital ingredient for stirring, shaking, and serving cocktails with flair and effect. Also, great garnishes are a must. Keep items like fresh lemons/limes, good granulated or powdered sugar, and flavoring agents, such as fresh mint and raw ginger, on hand at all times.

The References. Finally, a well-stocked bar should include some great reference guides, so Molly suggests having these books on hand: the timeless Harry Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book and Jim Meehan’s The PDT Cocktail Book: The Complete Bartender’s Guide from the Celebrated Speakeasy.

Server Uniforms: Great Style Needs a Standard

March 21st, 2014

The word ‘uniform’ is defined as: not varying or changing; staying the same at all times, in all places, or for all parts or members.

That statement is simple enough, but when creating restaurant business plans and hospitality concepts, there is importance in uniformity and consistency, especially when it comes to the uniforms that your staff will wear. Consider the look and appearance of your staff as a part of your brand mainstays, which also include the food, service, and atmosphere.

As restaurant consultants, when discussing uniforms with our clients, our goal is to bring best practices front and center, and acknowledge the fact that carefully thought out uniforms translate a concept, and they create a sense of belonging amongst the staff. And, importantly, standard uniforms make it easier for guests to identify staff members that are working at the front desk or in the dining room, and are a reflection of the experience that the guest is about to have, so, staff had better be dressed for success!

With that, we asked the General Manager of VSAG client Farmers Fishers Bakers, Kendra Graves, for some proven uniform guidelines to create uniformity across a brand concept.

Brand Extension. As you carefully consider team member uniforms, the most important factor to recognize is that staff attire is an extension of your brand, says Kendra. From colors to textures to styles to accessories, creating a look that best represents your brand is key. For example, if you are a fish house, a nautical theme (blues & whites) works; but if your establishment is an upscale, urban eatery than chic, sophisticated all black ensembles might be your best bet.

Manage Attire From Day One. Setting the tone for a standard of attire excellence prior to staff officially joining the team is important. Therefore, Kendra recommends providing each new hire with a concise, thorough, and illustrated Attire Guidelines document (outlining/providing visuals of all acceptable staff uniform guidelines from clothing/aprons to shoes to hair/facial hair styles to jewelry) before their first official workday. Introduce new hires to a staff member that models perfect attire, so new hires know exactly how to present themselves. *NOTE: if varied attire is worn (i.e. servers vs. managers vs. front desk), each should be detailed within the guidelines.

Attire Inspections. Kendra suggests having managers inspect staff attire at every pre-shift meeting (look for correct attire, pressed clothing/aprons, cleanliness, staff on the ready with approved accessories like pens, order books, etc).  If necessary, unapproved attire should be discussed one on one with the team member immediately following the pre-shift meeting, and if an item needs to be replaced or corrected (depending on urgency) Kendra usually allows staff three to five business days to do so. It’s also helpful to keep an iron readily available for anyone that hasn’t quite been able to get a shirt pressed.

Personal Style. Although Kendra believes it is important for staff to display their own sense of style, and allows for guidelines to be interpreted at times, these instances are always in the best interest of staff uniformity … and to enhancing the overall brand.

VSAG on Trend Watch: Tea, Please!

March 13th, 2014

Tea is big business these days. From notable spots like New York City’s iconic, The Russian Tea Room and niche, boutique tea lounges in major metropolitan cities, to tea drinking destination restaurants such as Teaism and Japanese tea houses becoming mainstream to big business, tea is a hot restaurant menu trend. Even coffee giant Starbucks is getting into the game at a higher level with the reported recent retail purchase of Teavana for $620 million.

Yup, we said “Trend.” Considering that according to the Tea Association of the USA, legend has tea discovered by Chinese Emperor Shen-Nung over 5,000 years ago, when tea leaves accidentally blew into his pot of boiling water, then grew in popularity in 1600’s Europe, and by 1904 the U.S. developed iced tea and the modern day tea bag … tea isn’t new to the culinary world, but it is gaining increasing popularity as we’ve become a more health-savvy and culinarily creative culture. In fact, on any given day in the U.S. over 158 million Americans are drinking tea.

Tea’s health benefits are key factors as to why it’s trending. As tea contains no sodium, fat, carbonation or sugar, it is virtually calorie-free and some believe therefore helps contribute to overall good health, making it a great restaurant menu choice. It’s also a good alternative to coffee, which many feel has grown too expensive in some ways – overtaken by a culture of commercialism.

It’s not just about the classic, soothing, tranquility in every sip; tea is being featured in food and beverage offerings all over the globe. Its versatility is part of its charm. From dynamic tea-flavored beverages and brothy soup bases to flavorful rubs for fish, meat, and poultry to pairing with foods in order to bring out their natural flavors (such as pairing spicy meat dishes with the strong, bold flavored black tea) and refreshing desserts (like yummy green tea ice cream) to tea cocktail beverages (hot toddy, anyone?) the options are endless.

photo courtesy of

March is National Nutrition Month. How Can You Mark It?

March 6th, 2014

At VSAG, we believe in Real Food, and in transparency in what we do and what we encourage our clients to do. In offering guests the freshest, most nutritional foods possible, it is the intention that they enjoy the experience while in any establishment of our clients, but also that they are inspired to serve their families and own guests healthy, fresh fare that they’ve encountered in the restaurants.

That is why we partner with other restaurant industry professionals to provide information on resources, education, and to focus on the importance of making informed choices and serving real food whenever possible, and not only in March as it marks National Nutrition Month, but all year long.

For the past four years, we have enjoyed an ongoing partnership with George Washington (GW) University’s Urban Food Task Force, an initiative that brings GW faculty, students, staff, and volunteers together in the shared interest of healthy eating and sustainable food production/policy.

We’re proud to play a part in the task force goal of developing scholarships and educational information and instruction on sustainable urban food policies, in proper training in healthy eating habits, food preparation, and sustainable food choices not only to GW students, faculty, and staff, but also the greater Washington D.C. regional community.

With your restaurant or food service operation, it is possible to get involved and take a stand to support the importance of promoting healthy, nutritional fare to your guests during National Nutrition Month and beyond. Focus on creating healthy and educational initiatives such as donating to your local sustainable food bank, hosting ‘Healthy Eating’ seminars in your restaurant where your chef/s might conduct a fresh dish demonstration (bonus: you will not only educate/engage guests, but hopefully they’ll stay to sample your delicious fare), and/or partner with a local nutritional expert or farmer to create specialized, seasonal menus using only locally grown ingredients.

Healthy eating should be every day, and led by those of us that are the arbiters of food service.

Should Catering be Part of Your Restaurant’s Business Plan?

February 28th, 2014

Your restaurant business plan may not have catering on the menu, but is it worth a look as another possible profit center? Well, considering that the National Restaurant Association reports that the catering industry is expected to be an $8.4 billion business in the U.S. this year (up 6 percent from last year) … we say – Yes.

Creating a catering department to coincide with your business model could work for you if you’re looking to broaden your brand and your business by providing an alternative revenue stream. Based on guest count per event, menus, staffing needs, overall expenses on the backend are passed onto the guest, and the stability of the catering services cycle (essentially non-stop throughout the year) … all additional appealing factors for adding catering to your operations.

Another plus: there is freedom, versatility, and fun that come from cooking offsite. Bring your creativity and passion (& best schmoozing skills) to someone else’s kitchen and make style and type of food preparation, distinctive menus, and presentation part of your brand. The element of intimacy and kitchen-to-plate connection with guests is priceless from a promotional standpoint, as not only will guests have a different experience than being in your restaurant, they will be more apt to come in to dine in your brick-and-mortar eatery, hire you for another catered event, and tell their friends about you.

If you’re still skeptical, we suggest starting small. Offer your regular diners and guests options for taking home party pans for a convenient way to entertain with delicious food, and then eventually transition to accommodating catering on a larger scale if it’s working for you and the market response has been positive.

Whether you create a workspace within your existing kitchen or expand or build out new space, your investment can grow over time. In the long run, it might be worth a look at how the competition has done it, as catering can offer great opportunities to:

  • Broaden your brand and community profile by reaching out to local business-owners to cater meetings, seminars, team building gatherings, corporate parties, and the like
  • Secure work around holidays by promoting your catering business not just at Thanksgiving and Christmas, but also create events/menus to mark celebrations such as St. Patrick’s Day, Mardi Gras, Halloween, Super Bowl Sunday, Cinco de Mayo, etc.  throughout the year
  • Partner with vendors such as a local farm, a well-respected sommelier, a co-op bakery or with an event rentals company to create cross-promotional, specialized events and be a much-referred to caterer for others

Exploring all means of potential profit is always a good option – with strong planning and motivation in place, success can come your way!

photography courtesy of Farmers Fishers Bakers


Jambalaya: A Hearty, Flavorful Addition to Any Winter Menu

February 25th, 2014

As guests enter your eatery and begin to defrost from the freezing winter temps outside, see how quickly they’ll happily warm up when you put a plate of hearty, flavorful Jambalaya in front of them.

An homage to New Orleans’ culinary landscape of fresh, bountiful flavors, Jambalaya is a versatile, one-pot wonder of savory, slow-cooked, seasoned rice combined with fresh meats such as chicken, ham, and smoked sausage, and/or seafood such as shrimp, crab, clams, and mussels … a combination of flavors guests are sure to love.

And what makes Jambalaya such a perfect, much-loved meal for chefs to prepare is the versatility of this dish. By definition, Jambalaya means “a mixture of diverse elements.” Thus, the potential flavors and mix of ingredients can prove endless.

Inspired by such feasts as ‘peasant pots,’ paella, farmhouse casseroles, and the like, Jambalaya is an effortless crowd-pleaser, livened by readily available ingredients and great spices. What more can you ask for while creating flavorful dishes to add to your seasonal menu rotation?

Serve alone or complement the dish with some crusty ciabatta bread or a salad of freshly chopped winter greens. Once the cold weather changes, you can modify your Jambalaya with some lighter, seasonal ingredients, vegetables, and herbs to reflect the warm months ahead!

 DC’s Farmers Fishers Bakers Seafood Chesapeake Style Jambalaya

The Aging of America’s Restaurant Workforce

February 11th, 2014

According to some recent stats by Black Box Intelligence and The People Report Workforce Index, a quarterly barometer of market pressures on employment practices for the restaurant industry, America’s restaurant workforce median age is on the rise.

No longer are the typical high school-aged teenagers we’re used to seeing behind a counter serving up dishes to guests, as the face of the restaurant service industry is shifting from teenagers to 20-somethings and beyond.

The landscape now shows that the median age for restaurant workers varies from 22 years old for quick service restaurant companies to 25.5 years old for upscale casual/fine dining concepts. Furthermore, a quarter of those upscale casual/fine dining employees are 30 years or older and on average 28 years old for quick service restaurants. And the trend is expected to steadily rise in the future.

Sure, you may be thinking that as your restaurant employees start checking off the next age bracket they might request a higher salary than the typical teen, but it’s worth taking a look at your forecasted business plan to review the benefits of creating a team where many of your players are not still playing high school varsity football. From advantages such as having the benefit of life experience and having more at stake in wanting (and many times needing) to keep their jobs, these substantial reasons could pave the way for the success of your staff, management, and the business as a whole.

So to keep your business growing, you should continue training staff and improving upon set service standards. Be a hands-on role model and complete tasks alongside employees as they train in order to not only perform as a team, but to ensure your brand concept is carried through each undertaking. Making them feel like a respected part of the organization is crucial for loyalty and longevity, and the overall benefit of your guests and your business.