How To Change Your Menu Without Scaring Loyal Customers
No one in their right mind would shut down a thriving gelato operation in the middle of an especially hot summer, yet Tony Mantuano took that risk when he temporarily closed Bar Toma to re-concept for six weeks in 2015.
When he reopened the casual Italian-focused eatery that’s right off Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, not only had he gotten rid of the gelato case, but also the innovative espresso and mozzarella bars.
The new focus? Well, not exactly new, but Mantuano decided to expand on the pizza concept of the business, which was only a small part of the operation when Bar Toma opened in 2011.
“What we started to realize after we opened was that we tried to do a lot of things,” admits Mantuano, a James Beard-award winning chef/operator who is also a partner in Spiaggia, Spiaggia Café and Terzo Piano in Chicago. “We were really about pizza there, so we doubled down on (it) and we moved the wood-burning oven to the front of the restaurant and gave it a twin.”
The abrupt shift in concept was likely jarring to some fans of the other aspects of the restaurant, but Mantuano’s redesign of the space, as well as guerrilla marketing tactics, immediately put them at ease.
In-your-face signs like “I Never Met A Pizza Like You Before” and an oversized mural of Mantuano proclaiming that Bar Toma is “one of the best pizza places in America” are meant to assure diners that they’ve made a great choice. It doesn’t hurt either that the space has been transformed into a sophisticated and modern pizza parlor, with red leather booths you can sink into. And on the grand re-opening day, he had servers give out free slices of pizza to patrons as well as to passersby in front of the restaurant.
Mantuano assures that his pizza stands out from the hundreds of offerings in the Windy City. He spent many years perfecting the dough, based on his experiences and travels through the several regions of Italy. It is crafted with imported Italian flour, filtered water, kosher salt and dry yeast. Then it’s fermented for 48 hours and wood-fired to perfection for a crisp crust and chewy center. Diners may choose from unique offerings like shrimp Diavolo topped with spicy Calabrian chilies, provolone, tomato relish, oregano or the “build-it-yourself” option with toppings such as fresh mozzarella, prosciutto, salami and jalapeño.
“It was a matter of deciding who you are and what you want to be and sticking to it,” says Mantuano. “For (Bar Toma), it was all about pizza.”
Mantuano isn’t the only operator who recognized when a small tweak to the menu could result in profitable results. As the second-generation owner of V’s Italiano Restaurant, Greg Hunsucker also knew that he couldn’t rest on the laurels of the Missouri-based eatery’s rich history. He had to move forward or be left behind like so many old-school restaurants in the area.As the second-generation owner of V’s Italiano Restaurant, Greg Hunsucker knew that he couldn’t rest on the laurels of the Missouri-based eatery’s rich history. He had to move forward or be left behind like so many old-school restaurants in the area.
As the second-generation owner of V’s Italiano Restaurant, Greg Hunsucker knew that he couldn’t rest on the laurels of the Missouri-based eatery’s rich history. He had to move forward or be left behind like so many old-school restaurants in the area.
Founded by his wife’s mother, Vita Totta (a.k.a. Momma V), V’s opened in 1963 and at the time the menu featured 100 percent of her recipes. That included a signature lasagna—made to order in individual casserole dishes—toasted provolone, Italian rum cake, meatballs and meat sauces. Those items, insists Hunsucker, will always be offered, however, he’s tweaked the menu as their “customers have changed with trends and diets and fads.”
“We’ve had to constantly mold our menu to keep up with those trends,” he admits. “It is now probably 75 percent original recipes and 25 percent ‘healthy alternative,’ ‘dietary restrictive,’ current trends and things such as that.”
These adjustments to the menu aren’t something Hunsucker has taken lightly; he carefully sourced ingredients, particularly in the case of gluten-free dishes.
“We were able to source gluten-free pasta that’s a high quality,” Hunsucker tells us. “It gives us a really good result in our recipes. We were then able to take existing recipes that had no gluten in them and create them into the pasta dishes. We now have a lot of offerings to satisfy customers.” That, of course, includes pizza selections such as the Italian sausage, seafood pesto or vegetarian.
Vegetarian dishes, in fact, are also a popular request at V’s, and Hunsucker has figured out how to appeal to that demographic without making adjustments to the menu. He says he went through all of the items and calculated what could be considered vegetarian. He counted 47 items such as artichoke dip, eggplant parmigiana and baked lasagna filled with mushrooms.
“That was kind of an eye-opener for us and our staff as well,” he says. “There are now a lot of opportunities for people who have dietary restrictions at V’s.”