As the owner of a bustling restaurant in the heart of New York City, Stathis Antonakopoulos takes pride in serving freshly prepared dishes to a loyal clientele.
But these days, Antonakopoulos says he’s had to cut corners to keep his Carnegie Diner & Cafe afloat. A perfect example: when it comes to the onion rings always in demand from the restaurant, he now relies on a frozen product instead of preparing his own.
Due to supply chain issues, Antonakopoulos cannot easily source the pre-cut onions he used for the dish. And with his staff limited — like so many restaurateurs across the country, he’s struggled to find workers lately — he can’t afford a prep cook to spend time slicing onions into perfect rings. while there are more essential tasks that need to be completed.
Nevertheless, it is a choice that hurts Antonakopoulos. “I really like doing everything from scratch,” he said.
Many restaurateurs face the same dilemma. And like Antonakopoulos, they are increasingly turning to pre-made products to get by.
Buyers Edge Platform, a company that helps restaurant operators, analyzed more than $10 billion in purchases by U.S. restaurants over the past six months and found reliance on these pre-made items was growing across nearly every category. menus.
According to Buyers Edge, orders for frozen pre-made soups and soup bases jumped 54%, while frozen dessert orders jumped 32%.
And what about onion rings? While Buyers Edge’s data isn’t as accurate, the company noted that frozen appetizer orders were up 32%.
The trend extends to the beverage space as well: Bar mixer orders were up 32%, Buyers Edge said.
Christina Davie Donahue, president of Buyers Edge Platform, said supply chain and personnel issues are largely driving the pre-made boom. “Restaurants really need to explore alternatives,” she said.
This is a trend confirmed by companies such as Sysco SYY,
and US Foods USFD,
two of the largest restaurant suppliers. And both companies are taking advantage of this by offering a growing range of products to make life easier for food service establishments.
US Foods Vice President of Product Development Stacey Kinkaid cites her carne asada steak strips as a recent example. Like many pre-made offerings, the strips are offered with versatility in mind, she said, noting that they can be used in everything from fajitas to salads. “They are one of our most successful items,” Kinkaid said.
Other factors also come into play with the prefab boom.
Einav Gefen, senior vice president of Restaurant Associates, a prominent foodservice operator that runs restaurants in museums, stores and other locations across the country, says demand for niche dining options, including including gluten-free and vegan ones, puts additional pressure on operators. Restaurants can only prepare so many types of dishes for such a large number of customers, but if they want to be welcoming to all diners, they may have to rely on ready meals – for example, a crust gluten-free pizza – so you can have these options at your fingertips.
“Customization requests have increased tenfold” in recent years, Gefen said.
It’s not that pre-made necessarily means the restaurant just puts a dish in a microwave and then plates it. In many cases, they use this item as the basis for a dish that will be finished at home. This is part of what is commonly referred to in the industry as speed cooking, a faster way to prepare food while still retaining some of the restaurant’s brand.
Victoria Gutierrez, Sysco’s vice president of merchandising, cites her frozen cauliflower pizza crust, a gluten-free and vegan offering, as an example of something that plays into this “quick scratch” idea. That is, the restaurant may not make the crust, but “they can top it and do whatever they want to make it exciting.”
““Where do you draw the line? It’s a slippery slope.”
Yet for some restoration professionals, the idea of taking even the smallest of shortcuts can lead down a dangerous path and, in turn, challenge what restoration should be.
“Where do you draw the line? It’s a slippery slope,” said Megan Brown, chef of Anything At All, a New York restaurant that opened last year. Brown added that she tries to have as many homemade products as possible in her restaurant, including the jam offered at breakfast.
Brown also noted that while she makes an exception, she often sources her supplies not from a large, enterprise-type supplier, but from a specialty independent supplier. For example, Brown said she buys some of her desserts at “a one-woman pastry shop in Brooklyn.”
Of course, the rules for chain restaurants, especially fast food joints, are different from those for fine-dining restaurants or even more casual but independent establishments. One cook isn’t likely to enslave all the burgers in a chain that sells millions every year.
But even in foodie destinations, there are certain shortcuts that are generally deemed acceptable. Many of these establishments do not bake their own bread. Desserts are also often outsourced.
“You can’t do it all, that’s for sure,” said Stephen Zagor, a veteran restaurant consultant.
As for restaurant owner Stathis Antonakopoulos, he said he could live with the frozen onion rings for now. But he refuses to compromise on many other items on the menu, whether it’s his homemade cheesecake or his ever-popular omelettes. Of the latter, he noted that he could save time by using an egg mixture, but the taste just isn’t the same.
So he takes the most laborious route. “We crack every egg,” he said.