Family-style restaurants offering shareable meals are popping up around the country, inspiring consumers to gather friends and family for a communal night out. And while family-style can mean a more relaxed environment for guests and higher profits for restaurateurs, operators warn that you may run the risk of unhappy customers if the menu isn’t presented correctly.
“Our guests enjoy the variety of a shared dining experience, but for family-style dining to be enjoyed, portions and balance need to be considered; this is best accomplished with a well-trained server guiding the diner experience,” says Vicki Kim, partner at Ruxbin and Mott St. in Chicago. “When guests don't order enough, either because they don't trust the server's recommendations or overestimate the serving size, one or two bites can cause diners to leave feeling dissatisfied.”
“As a large group, having a progression of smaller plates allows for much more fun experience, and the pacing of the kitchen is in control a bit more than if we’re doing the traditional first, second, third course,” says Christian Pappanicholas, owner of The Cannibal in New York and Los Angeles. “We don’t consider it fully family style; it’s more about having multiple dishes on the table that everyone can enjoy.
“I always thought about going to the butcher shop and the butcher would be having you taste some pate, some salumi, some cheese, maybe he gives you a glass of wine or two. Then he cooks up some sausage and or maybe a steak," Pappanicholas adds.
"It’s about the progression of the meal from some tartare to a whole pig’s head. It’s a more interesting way to eat, because it doesn’t feel so committal. When speaking of the large-format feast, that is communal. A whole pig that everyone gets to eat together is a joyous, ‘just got back from storming the castle’ event.”
“I think the biggest risk you run with family-style dining is a guest over-ordering or under-ordering based on the occasion, which could potentially harm their experience and reflect poorly on your brand,” says Adriano Paganini, founder of The Back of The House restaurant group in San Francisco. “We spend a lot of time really trying to define the concept and train staff so they are able to guide the guest through the experience they want to have. We also pay a lot of attention to how things are priced; if something is priced high, yet the portion is small, it could send the message that it’s a large plate and vice versa.”
Overall, operators advise thorough staff training in portion sizes and how many people each dish will feed to eliminate guests ordering too much or too little. You’ll likely find that you need to tweak recommendations based on the feedback received from your own guests along the way.