Portion size seems to have slipped under the radar as a critical factor in restaurant development, but remains a quintessential talking point among customers that owners must recognize and immediately react to in order to retain loyalty and brand image. Larger portion sizes don’t always positively correlate with a restaurant’s success, but there’s certainly a fine line between keeping it classy and starving your customers.

Nutrition, obesity awareness and small plates are trending to an almost annoyingly high extent right now [this is coming from a very body- and nutrition-conscious writer]. These themes, coupled with rising food costs and an increasingly competitive landscape, inspire owners to reduce portion sizes. In theory this kills two birds with one stone: keep customers happy and increase your bottom line. To execute these ideals in practice, however, requires significant insight about your customers, what they want and what keeps them coming to you.

The question you need to ask yourself, the owner: How far do you want to push the boundaries of portion size? Everyone will have a different limit, but think about a few of these points to determine where you fall along the spectrum:

Know your customers

This theme is recurrent across many of my articles, and will continue to be in the future, because this is the most important thing you can do to run a successful restaurant. What kind of customers does your restaurant bring in? Is eating to get full their top priority, or are they there to socialize with eating as a secondary activity?

Some customers will be very vocal about not getting enough food, but most won’t bring it up. It’s uncomfortable to ask a restaurant for more [think Oliver Twist!], but at the same time those customers who leave hungry will have a hard time coming back. When in doubt, walk the floor and casually ask your loyalists what they think. Be as direct as you want, and convey that you only want to make their experience better. They will speak their mind.

Look at the plates

To get a better grasp on what your customers aren’t saying, take a look at the food people are leaving on their plates. Chefs use this storied practice to see which menu items are thrown out most often, but in this case, you’re looking for the opposite. Are most of your plates coming back empty? Sure, it could be a sign that the item was a hit; but conversely, it can be a strong hint that your customers are still hungry.

Assume your typical 4-top will split 2-3 appetizers, one entrée each, 2-3 sides and maybe a dessert. That’s quite a lot of food, on paper, and you’d expect there to be a few fries and the last 5% of a sandwich or pasta dish when the server takes everything away. If every plate comes back squeaky clean, that is your customers saying that they are still hungry, that they enjoyed the meal, but next time will likely find another place where they don’t have to scavenge for every last crumb.

Consider both cost savings and their consequences

What are your gross margins across your menu? If your food costs are tremendously high relative to your menu prices, then shrinking portion size may be an option. A healthy margin is ~70% [Note, this is only considering cost of food. Adding labor, rent, etc. and your margins will shrink substantially.]. But before downsizing, consider the alternatives: recipe modifications, sourcing changes, etc.

Raising prices is tough, but is likely necessary if yours haven’t changed in a long time. Your loyalists will be much more likely to pay more to receive the same quality product rather than pay the same to witness the slow decay and eventual death of what brought them to your restaurant in the first place. Sure, people notice prices, but they will notice the change in the experience that much more.

Trying to mask smaller portions through different presentation will rarely work. Your loyal customers will see right through fancy new bowls, or small cedar planks replacing plates. They will immediately notice that there is less food in front of them, and they do not like to be duped like that. Your loyalists trust you, and it is vital that you hold this trust sacred and communicate any changes that you are making, so that everyone is on the same page.

These are but a few of many thoughts toward portion size management. More will very likely be discussed in future articles.