As the owner of a busy diner in the heart of New York City, Stathis Antonakopoulos prides himself on serving freshly prepared food to a loyal clientele.
But these days, Antonakopoulos says he’s had to cut some corners to keep his Carnegie Diner & Cafe afloat. A perfect case in point: When it comes to the restaurant’s always-in-demand onion rings, he’s now relying on a frozen product instead of preparing his own.
Because of supply-chain issues, Antonakopoulos can’t easily source the pre-cut onions he used to use for the dish. And with his limited staffing — like so many restaurant operators across the country, he has struggled to find workers of late — he can’t afford to have a prep cook spend time slicing onions into perfect rings when there are more essential tasks that need to be done.
Nevertheless, it’s a choice that pains Antonakopoulos. “I really like to make everything from scratch,” he said.
Many restaurant proprietors are facing the very same dilemma. And like Antonakopoulos, they are increasingly turning to pre-made products as a means to get by.
Buyers Edge Platform, a company that assists food-service operators, analyzed more than $10 billion in purchases by U.S. restaurants over the past six months and found that reliance on those pre-made items is growing across almost all menu categories.
Orders for frozen pre-made soups and soup bases have surged by 54%, according to Buyers Edge, while orders for frozen desserts have jumped 32%.
And what about onion rings? While the Buyers Edge data didn’t get that specific, the company did note that orders for frozen appetizers have increased by 32%.
The trend also extends to the drink space: Orders for bar mixers are up by 32%, Buyers Edge said.
Christina Davie Donahue, president of Buyers Edge Platform, said supply-chain and staffing issues are very much what’s prompting the pre-made boom. “Restaurants are really needing to explore alternatives,” she said.
It’s a trend confirmed by such companies as Sysco SYY, +2.26% and US Foods USFD, -0.28%, two of the biggest suppliers to restaurants. And both companies are capitalizing on it by offering an increasing array of products designed to make things easier for dining establishments.
US Foods vice president of product development Stacey Kinkaid points to its carne asada steak strips as a recent example. Like many pre-made offerings, the strips are offered with versatility in mind, she said, noting they can be used in everything from fajitas to salads. “They’re one of our most successful items,” Kinkaid said.
Other factors also come into play with the pre-made boom.
Einav Gefen, a senior vice president with Restaurant Associates, a prominent food-service operator that runs restaurants at museums, stores and other locations throughout the country, says the demand for niche dining options, including gluten-free and vegan ones, puts added pressure on operators. Restaurants can only prepare so many types of food for so many customers, but if they want to be welcoming to all diners, they may have to rely on pre-made items — say, a gluten-free pizza crust — to be able to have those options on hand.
“The asks for customization have grown tenfold” in the past few years, said Gefen.
Not that pre-made necessarily means the restaurant is just putting a dish in a microwave and then plating it. In many cases, they are using that item as a base for a dish that will be finished in house. It’s part of what’s commonly referred to in the industry as “speed scratch” cooking, a faster way to prepare food but still retain some of the restaurant’s own stamp.
Victoria Gutierrez, Sysco vice president of merchandising, points to its frozen cauliflower pizza crust, a gluten-free and vegan offering, as an example of something that plays into this “speed scratch” idea. That is, the restaurant may not make the crust, but “they can top it and do whatever they want to keep it exciting.”
“‘Where do you draw the line? It’s a slippery slope.””
Still, for some restaurant professionals, the idea of taking even the smallest of shortcuts can lead down a dangerous path and, in turn, defy what dining should be all about.
“Where do you draw the line? It’s a slippery slope,” said Megan Brown, chef of Anything At All, a New York City restaurant that opened last year. Brown added that she tries to have as much made in-house in her restaurant as possible, including the jam that’s offered at breakfast.
Brown also noted that if she makes an exception, she often sources the products not from a large, corporate-style supplier, but an independent purveyor with a specialty. For example, Brown said she purchases some of her desserts from “a one-woman cake shop out of Brooklyn.”
Of course, the rules for chain restaurants, especially fast-food places, are different than the ones for fine dining or even more casually oriented but independent establishments. A cook is not likely to be slaving over every burger in a chain that sells millions of them on an annual basis.
But even in fine-dining destinations, there are certain shortcuts generally deemed acceptable. Many such establishments don’t 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 diner owner Stathis Antonakopoulos, he said he can live with the frozen onion rings for now. But he refuses to compromise on many other menu items, be it his house-made cheesecake or ever-popular omelets. Of the latter, he noted that he could save time by using an egg mix, but the taste just isn’t the same.
So, he goes the more labor-intensive route. “We crack every egg,” he said.