Supply chain issues are hitting everybody hard right now, but while industries like clothing or toys can better survive a temporary hold on some goods, it’s not as forgiving for restaurants.
But there’s a silver lining. Substituting ingredients or even complete dishes can create opportunity for you and your customers to discover something better than before. Here are the ways to make the most of supply chain constraints.
1. Discover an Alternate Ingredient that Better Benefits Your Kitchen
Exploring alternative ingredients might lead you to something more favourable than what you had before. Maybe you find a new product that’s more affourdable, more available or more appealing to customers than what you were initially using.
Bar Manager Cal King found that to be true at The Mill Northeast in Minneapolis: “There’s a Pisco that I built this drink around. And as soon as we launched the menu, I ordered a case of that Pisco and the rep said, ‘Hey, we’re not ever going to get that back.’ I said, well, can I get something similar? She brought in a comparable liquor and I was like okay, this is so much better and it’s the same price.”
You could even find a product that comes with a few prep steps taken care of. Maybe a pre-made sauce that cuts down on those precious minutes of labour. Or a riced cauliflower that comes already riced, rinsed and recipe ready. Pre-processed items often help you avoid waste and risk of contamination as well.
2. Introduce Your Guests to Something New
If you’re short on an essential ingredient for one dish, you can offer something new and more enticing—maybe a flavour people aren’t familiar with. Can’t make a Mediterranean beef and roasted veggie salad? Serve nam tok: a Thai beef salad often comprised of marinated, grilled and sliced beef that’s tossed with red onion, scallion cilantro and a spicy sauce.
No lemon for a marinade? Try a ½-to-1 ratio of white wine. Or even yuzu—a tart and fragrant East Asian citrus fruit. While different than lemon (and can get a little pricey), it’s a new and intriguing feature to see on a menu.
3. Use This Opportunity to Jump on Trends
Customers are always looking for something unique and exciting. When you’re at the point where you need to make a switch to a new ingredient or dish, look at what’s trending to see if anything up-and-coming fits into your gap.
There’s a bonus here too. Changing your menu can give the perception that you’re staying fresh and keeping on top of new flavour ideas, which can really benefit your image. Who knows, you might even be the one to create the next big trend!
Different Ways to Substitute Low-Supply Ingredients
When you’re at the point where you need to find a substitution, here are three ways to face the challenge.
Try to Emulate It
Find a substitution that imitates the profile and overall eating experience. Beef is a good example. If you don’t have access to one cut of beef, consider a different cut that has a similar tenderness and juiciness.
Or maybe it’s adjusting an ingredient to try to match the one you’re out of. “When I bought limes last week, it cost me three times what a case cost two weeks ago,” said Cal King. “So what do we do? We can use acid-adjusted lemon juice or acid-adjusted grapefruit juice and get some of the same tininess.”
Cal also ran into liquor shortages. “Say we’ve got no bourbon this week. What product can we mix together for this cocktail? Take two or three rums, add a tequila, blend it up, and all of a sudden you’ve got a similar profile and at least it’ll work well enough in a cocktail. It’s stressful, but it is a fun balancing act that we all have to do.”
Take a Step Away
You can use something that might not be identical but can at least replace the function in a similar way.
“If I’m short on Chinese schezwan sauce, maybe I can go to a Japanese spice instead,” says Chef Dan Follese of Food Trend Translator. “If you have a garlic butter steak with lemon-zested green beans, but green beans are on hold, try to keep it bright and summery with asparagus or a crispy kale in a lemon sauce to keep that same experience.”
Go Far Beyond
If there’s no chance of mimicking the missing ingredient, and if you’re adventurous enough to try, put something completely new on your menu. Add an Irish sea moss salad to replace a side dish. Need a flavour enhancer? Try a spicy plum mostarda.
At the end of the day, your customers are likely aware that the supply chain issues have been and will continue to cause changes. “There’s now a gastronomic acceptability to do more creative things with unusual ingredients in kitchens,” says Chef Dan. “Constraints often drive discovery, and you might end up finding something you’ll love long term.”