Sharing Plates—A Menu Category with Growing Opportunity
Call them what you want—small plates, shareables—they’re still growing in popularity. Here are 5 on-trend ways you can incorporate them into your menu.
The sharing plates category marks one of the largest macro trends in foodservice today. It continues to evolve, presenting new opportunities as both modern flavor trends and dining habits inform its creative, flavor-forward menu development. The genesis of the trend can be traced to the mid 1980s, when Spanish tapas captured the imagination of many consumers. “Diners realized they could order a wide assortment of dishes and share them,” says Gordon Food Service® Corporate Consulting Chef Gerry Ludwig, CEC. “This marked a sea change in the industry, and foodies were the first to embrace this ‘new’ format, where they could try all of the tastes around the table.”
The tapas craze evolved into a meze phenomenon, showcasing Mediterranean small plates for a broader flavor adventure. Eclectic American restaurants, gastropubs and taverns soon picked up on the trend, leveraging the social, fun side of sharing plates. Propelling sharing plates forward and moving them deeper into a mega trend? The younger generations. “Although boomers launched this trend initially, I really believe that Millennials and Gen Z are making it even more relevant today,” Ludwig says. “They love the social, casual aspect of dining. They also love a bit of adventure.” Today’s opportunity, he says, comes from interpreting modern flavor trends through sharing plates.
Adding sharing plates does not require a brand overhaul or a re-engineering of the menu.
Here are three ways to do it:
- Eliminate side dishes and weave them into shared plates instead.
- Limit the selection of entrées and make them designed for sharing.
- Rename appetizers as small plates/sharing plates for a modern feel.
“Addressing this trend is answering the demand from consumers,” Ludwig says. It’s not about check building. It’s about establishing differentiation in the marketplace and increasing your value proposition that keeps them coming back.
5 ways into the trend
On their annual external research tour, Ludwig and his culinary R&D team has identified five fantastic menu opportunities in sharing plates.
1. Crocks & Spreads: From potted meats to cheese spreads, this ultra-shareable continues to gain traction on menus, interpreting various flavor trends in its many iterations. Cheese spreads pull from both the Southern trend, with pimento cheese, for instance, as well as the microbrew trend, adding premium beer to the mix. Modern seafood makes a play here, too. As example, look to Chicago’s Beacon Tavern with its Peekytoe Crab Dip featuring Old Bay, lemon and Utz crab chips.
Crocks & Spreads on the Menu
- Cheese and Crackers. Aged Cheddar and WPA Spread, Ritz sleeve — Forbidden Root, Chicago
- Potted House Smoked Salmon with salmon roe and dill — The Belvedere, Los Angeles
- Garden Egg Salad with trout roe, celery leaf, sourdough toast — Manuela, Los Angeles
2. Hummus Beyond Chickpeas: Leading the wave of Eastern Mediterranean exploration is hummus. And now comes the creative innovation around this shareable spread, where chefs are leveraging the familiarity and snackability of hummus, then turning it into a signature sharing plate.
Hummus Beyond Chickpeas on the Menu
- Cauliflower Hummus with popcorn, toasted seeds, red onion, dill, grilled bread — The Little Beet Table, Chicago
- Pumpkin Hummus and Naan Bread with pomegranate pepita salsa — Rose Cafe, Los Angeles
3. Tartars & Crudos: We’ve seen what Ludwig calls the “mega explosion” of poke on fast-casual menus, signaling a readiness from diners to explore raw and marinated products. Tartars, crudos (a dish of Chilean heritage similar to steak tartare), ceviches and poke fit beautifully into a sharing-plates strategy—serving up fresh, clean flavors in a fun, social format.
Tartars & Crudos on the Menu
- Five Dot Ranch Steak Tartare with banyuls, preserved tomato chutney, watercress, quail egg, sour ciabatta — Solbar, Calistoga, CA.
- Beef & Butter with salt and pepper, grilled bread — Cannibal, Los Angeles
4. Crunchy-Fried Items: It’s hard to get more craveable than a perfectly crispy bite. “One of the reasons we’re seeing so much innovation in this category is that this deep-fried, flavor-forward sharing plates are not easy to reproduce at home,” Ludwig says. “Two of the primary drivers for consumers are unique foods and flavors and items they can’t make at home.” Creativity is king today, so look to dishes like Camarones con Quinoa, served at Boleo in Chicago—quinoa-crusted shrimp with sweet potato croquettes and a passion fruit reduction.
Crunchy-Fried Items on the Menu
- Creamed Spinach Hushpuppies with beef au jus butter — Quality Eats, New York
- Mondeghili Milanesi: Bread-crusted meat patties with lemon, salsa verde and watercress — Officine Brera, Los Angeles
5. Clam Dishes: The modern seafood trend puts forth a casual, approachable vibe, and clams—briny, familiar and delicious—fit nicely into this space. “We’re seeing larger clams grilled or served raw, maybe topped, then roasted or baked,” Ludwig says. “Some of the clam dishes on menus today are served in a broth or steamed and tossed in a bit of pasta.”
Clam Dishes on the Menu
- Chowder Fries: Housemade clam chowder, thick-cut bacon, steamed littleneck clams, celery — Plan Check, Los Angeles
- Pacceri with clams, n’duja, black garlic, white wine — Ocean Cut, Chicago