Hey, where’s ‘my’ menu?

How two SW restaurants decide to change their seasonal offerings

Ever sit down at your favorite restaurant and wonder where your number one entree went? We asked two Southwest restaurants for insight into the seemingly mysterious how's and why's of menu changes. Here's what they had to say.

Figlio

Figlio Italian restaurant and bar, 3001 Hennepin Ave. S. in Calhoun Square, expects their new paper menus to arrive by June. The paper menus will help them rotate item choices more, even daily, for seasonal varieties and specials.

But some dinners, like their meat-and-cheese tortellini, are here to stay, said Figlio's Mike Herstine, general manager. It's been a favorite since they opened almost 20 years ago. Other dishes, like pizzas and pastas, have a shorter life expectancy, sometimes just a few weeks. Currently, six or seven items, including lunch and dinner specials and deals, change everyday. Why all the shifting?

"We want to create that excitement so people can walk away and tell a story," said Herstine.

When the paper menus arrive (they can change the text on them in the restaurant's office), they'll be able to offer more deals on dishes that go fast -- like their cicchetti, small Italian plates that offer appetizer-like fare such as salad or cheese, for only $3-$5. Figlio features 8-10 cicchetti plates a day. They're so popular Herstine usually sells 170-180 orders of them on a Friday or a Saturday night.

"[They're] the Italian answer to tapas," said Herstine. "People can pick on them in addition to or in place of an appetizer."

When Figlio alters the menu, however, they maintain a certain number of menu choices. For example, if they take a pizza with meat sauce off the menu, they'll replace it with another pizza that calls for a different meat sauce recipe. They rotate pastas the same way.

Herstine said they get their ideas from conversations they've overheard, trips to Italy (their sous chef Rex Reitmeyer tries to go at least every two years), food magazines, and from trend purveyors who update them on market activity. (Herstine himself has a chef background and even spent some time with a pizzeria in Italy).

"We all love food, it's very much a passion for us," said Herstine.

Although Herstine said the restaurant hopes to include a price range that fits people's budgets, menu changes are based mostly on dish.

"With everything that's been happening lately, it seems like people are more value-driven than price-driven," Herstine said. "We just want to offer people their money's worth."

Inevitably, anything they stop serving will always be somebody's favorite. That's when Herstine takes down his customer's name and number -- so he can call them to let them know when the dish will be back, or, about a new special he thinks they might enjoy instead. If it's a regular customer whose preferred plate has been cancelled, he gives them his telephone number, so he's ready to take requests.

Herkimer Pub and Brewery

Herkimer Pub and Brewery, 2922 Lyndale Ave. S, serves an eclectic mix of Americana pub-fare. After 10 months of testing different dishes (i.e., offering specials), they introduced their newest menu on April 1.

According to general manager Chad Jamrozy, Herkimer changes their menu every spring, substituting old options with ones they've already tested on their customers. Being "specials heavy," as Jamrozy puts it, featuring year-round specials or "experiments," they can gauge what dishes interest people most.

"It's not like throwing darts. It's part of an extended process," said Jamrozy. "We also have a sophisticated software program where we keep track of everything so we can make decisions that way, too."

The new menu is about 15 percent larger than the previous. Approximately a third of the menu is different. Some plates, like their Plum Chipotle Pasta, calamari, rotisserie chicken, quesadillas, pulled pork sandwich, fish n' chips, crab cakes, and Japanese chicken salad are old favorites that Jamrozy said won't be going anywhere.

He also said the 4-year-old business can rely on regulars for fantastic feedback. "We have a good feel for who our customers are and a competent chef who solicits lots of feedback," Jamrozy said.

No matter what they do, though, some favorites are overlooked -- like their kabob or tostada entrees, which are no longer on the menu -- a move some customers regret. That's when Jamrozy and the chef steer them toward another dish they might like instead. "We try to keep everything new," he said.

Since nearby restaurants serve different kinds of food, menus are not changed in order to increase competition, but to keep the menu fresh.

"It's a way to elevate the dining experience, to make it fun," said Jamrozy.