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:
“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.
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
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
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
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
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