How to Thrive During the Leafy Green Price Spike
Due to the developing food safety situation involving Romaine Lettuce, prices of substitute leafy greens are expected to increase dramatically in the coming weeks as demand exceeds available supply. Shortages and out of stock situations are expected throughout North America. For more details, read our market price alert here.
We’ve got a potentially tough road ahead of us, where you’ll need to balance higher food costs, potentially a total lack availability of others (as demand for substitutes rise) and your guests’ expectations—we’re here to offer as much of our collective expertise as possible in this extreme situation. Every roadblock is an opportunity to differentiate yourself and create a great experience for your guests. Get started today!
Step 1: Educate
Guest education is absolutely critical when it comes to navigating product shortages and safety concerns. Your loyal guests are likely going to arrive at your restaurant, expecting to be able to order their favorite menu item exactly as they’ve had it dozens of times before. Depending on pricing and availability, that may not be possible as early as next week.
Consider proactively telling guests, with either a door sign, “out of stock” notice on key items on your menu and apps, or even before they order as part of your service.
Explain the cause of the shortages—most people will have heard about romaine lettuce situation but not many guests will think about the impacts to other kinds of leafy greens and the ripple effects through the market.
Use social media, mailing lists and other channels where your guests expect to hear from you. Don’t miss the chance to set expectations early and immediately let them know what you’re planning on doing for them.
Step 2: Adapt
We know. No one wants to change a tried and true recipe, but in extreme times you need to manage your food costs and adapt to the availability with the market.
Review your menu and see if you’re able to swap in something like kale, arugula, or cabbage (green, red, or savoy) as the base. They obviously have different flavours, textures, and preparations, but if it’s the choice between a modification or 86’ing a dish, weigh the impacts. How popular is the dish? Are you an establishment with a build-your-own dish style menu where customers may be more amenable to a switch?
Straight swap: Ingredients that aren’t expected to be as severely impacted by market pricing are green kale, arugula and cabbage. This, combined with wide familiarity and easily adaptable flavour profiles make them the best substitutes to higher priced or unavailable leafy greens.
A new special: If you have to simply remove items from your menu, consider adding a substitute dish all together, like a relatively low-cost slaw, kale based dish, or new concoction using radish, sweet potato, or squash.
Seize the opportunity. This is also a chance to get a little adventurous; look to pea tendrils, dandelion greens, brussels sprouts and rainbow chard for inspiration to keep your salad game strong.
Set expectations. If you’re going to substitute, take the opportunity to tell guests about the change and reasons behind it. You’ll get sick of saying it, but they’ll appreciate the hospitality.
What if my customers are frustrated? Sometimes it’s unavoidable. Here are some tips on dealing with customer expectations for unavailable items.
Suggest a substitute: This is where your strategy for replacements comes into play. Make sure your staff knows all the details and the message you’re trying to share with your guests.
Explain the benefits of the substitute (“A lot of our diners have been loving this twist on the dish,” or “Arugula adds a great peppery taste which goes great with the lemon dressing.”)
Offer a sweetener: If your substitute is actually a more expensive item you’re selling for the same price, casually mention that they’re getting a great deal. “Typically this is a premium product, but we’re offering it to you at the same price due to the availability issues.”
If all else fails, let them know you understand how they feel and promise a great experience when the market stabilizes. Make sure you highlight the fact that this is a North American wide issue, and use it as a chance to set their expectations.
Remember, you can always offer and guests can choose whether or not they order. What may look like a disappointment at the time is an opportunity to go above and beyond for customers, and it is better than overpromising and underdelivering.
Step 3: Pause
We touched on this above, but just to be clear, if you’re not able to get the ingredients you want (which may be a real possibility soon due to increased demand and a limited number of growers) and unable to substitute, you’ll have to completely remove the item from your menu. This sucks, without a doubt, but keep this in mind:
Everyone’s in the same boat. Romaine lettuce makes up more than 38% of the leafy green spend and everyone who uses leafy greens will be clamoring to secure substitutes.
This will be temporary. While the romaine lettuce situation is still unfolding, until grocers begin shipping romaine again at full capacity, supply issues and high prices are expected to continue.
Step 4: Monitor
Tying back into guest education, the best thing you can do for your diners is be an expert they can turn to amidst reports of uncertainty and, frankly scary news stories. It shows you care about their safety and are up to date on the most important aspects of your business. The last thing you want to do is not be able to answer a perfectly reasonable question about pricing, availability, safety, or anything else related to this situation.
Here’s a selection of resources that you can bookmark now to stay up to speed on the latest.
ChefHero’s Update Center:
We’ll update this as often as we hear of any developments
Public Health Canada:
https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/public-health-notices/2018/outbreak-ecoli-infections-linked-romaine-lettuce.html - Updated November 21, 2018
https://www.cdc.gov/ecoli/2018/o157h7-11-18/index.html - Updated November 20, 2018
We got this.
Above all else, remember that stressful occasions like this can be a blessing or a curse, it just depends how you position yourself to weather them. It may sound cheesy, but no one’s better at taking care of your guests than you. Use this unusual market situation as a chance to go above and beyond, make connections, and continue to provide them with an amazing dining experience. Do that, and once this all blows over, they’ll love you even more than they did before.
Got your own advice? Stories? Recipes for substitutions? We’d love to know. Comment below!