Setting The Scene With Tabletop Items

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Unconventional is perhaps the most fitting term to sum up current trends in tabletop items at foodservice establishments. Restaurants want to create a unique, cohesive atmosphere and dinnerware, cutlery and glassware are all part of conveying a concept — especially in the era of food-obsessed social-media users.

“The trend is for restaurants to be unique,” says Lorne Gaffe, senior vice-president, Fortessa Tableware Solutions Canada, Inc., headquartered in Ashburn, Va. “People would come to us at the NRA Show and the Restaurants Canada Show and say ‘I need something to elevate my restaurant/table. What do you have that is different; that can take me to a different level?’”

In their pursuit to hit this mark, some restaurateurs have even gone as far as to source vintage or one-of-a-kind pieces to suit the unique identity of their establishment. At Oliver & Bonacini’s downtown-Toronto restaurant Leña, there’s an “old-world feel to the place,” explains Paul Brans, culinary stylist, Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants. To suit the concept, Brans sourced mis-matched vintage silverware and china from untraditional sources. “We went to antique markets and bought loads of forks, spoons and knives,” as well as candy and compote dishes, patterned dinnerware and tea cups and saucers. “We changed it up to give more of a nod to the past,” he explains.

These vintage and heavily patterned items were then paired with Tafelstern whiteware to strike the right balance. To suite the sharing-plate-focused menu at Leña, the restaurant uses approximately nine different plates and bowls to serve its fare.

The Fairmont Pacific Rim’s new restaurant, Botanist, took a different approach when sourcing unique dinnerware. The restaurant worked with Fortessa’s Cloud Terre Studio — a Washington, D.C.-based pottery and design studio — to create custom, hand-thrown vessels for its dishes.

In all, Gaffe estimates that the studio created five distinct “forms” for the restaurant. “Our designer, Amber [Kendrick], engages a chef, designer or food-and-beverage manager and [gets a feel for the concept/food/community] and together they custom-make pieces,” explains Gaffe. “It’s the most unique experience.”

As Gaffe notes, going the custom route comes with a higher price point. However, there are other ways to create a unique look and raise tabletop appeal. Additional key trends include mid-century modern aesthetics, industrial/architectural designs and organic shapes. Together, these trends are bringing more colour, texture and bold looks to tabletops, along with touches of metallic.

“The biggest trend I see happening is what I call the millennial effect…They are really moving the mark and they’re quick and into what things look like; they’re into sharing ideas and thoughts with people,” says Lee Ann Kelly, vice-president of Sales, American Metalcraft. “Because they have that money to spend and want all of these things, they are driving operators to come up with new and different menu items and concepts; things are coming in and out very quickly.”

“People are looking for something different so we’re looking at various wood finishes; we are looking at colours, layering of materials and using things in different ways,” Kelly adds. “It’s all about using something conventional in shape, but making it look different with finish.”

Though most apparent in the full-service sector, the trend towards unique and elevated tabletops permeates all facets of foodservice.

Kelly points to specialty serving vessels for sides and starters as a key trend, especially in more casual settings — think fry cups/cones, onion-ring towers and mini-fry baskets. “It gives a unique way of presenting that product,” she explains. “It’s a lot easier to buy a couple dozen French-fry cups to give a menu item a different look versus redoing your china.”

Cooking vessels — often scaled-down versions — are also finding their way onto tables. “I’m finding people are using more little copper pots as serving vessels [as well as] little skillets or frying pans going right on the table for sharing,” says Brans. “One of the things we’re looking at right now [is] aluminum bake pans used as plates,” adds Alym Hirji, executive chef, Craft Operations, at Craft Beer Market. “We’re moving away from white ceramic plates and moving [towards] more appropriate ware for what our brand is about.”

“The fact of the matter is, you can go into fast-food today and your experience at McDonald’s is completely different than it was 15 years ago,” adds Gaffe. “It has to do with people striving to make their establishments better and gain more market share.”

DECISIONS, DECISIONS
When selecting tableware for a concept, the food and the atmosphere are usually the first factors considered. As Brans explains, the menu-development process is a key time to determine needs. “When you’re actually using the plate with the dishes, you get a better understanding of how you want it to look and how many you’re going to need.” Because Leña’s menu features several sharing plates, Brans also factors in how many plates will be on the table at a time. “We didn’t go for a huge dinner plate, which was the trend for ages.”

“With plateware specifically, the ultimate goal is to enhance and showcase our food,” says Hirji. However, Craft Beer Market holds environmental and social responsibility among its core values and takes this into consideration when sourcing wares. “We may start by finding a piece and then we’ll actually connect with our suppliers and have them tell us [the manufacturer’s] story and what they do. If they can’t share with us how they have a positive impact on the environment, [we will find] something similar that better fits with our values,” Hirji explains.

Overall, durability, washability and availability are among the most important factors to consider when selecting tabletop items. With space at a premium in many kitchens, space-saving features are also appealing. “Space is a concern in many operations,” says Kelly. “Being able to nest or stack a product is always key.” However, many operators are willing to overlook some of these criteria in the name of aesthetic appeal. As Kelly notes, wood and copper items are in high demand, despite not being the most ideal materials for a foodservice environment.

With so many factors to consider, finding the magic formula for a concept can be a challenge. The Craft Beer Market team has found testing is the best way to ensure the perfect fit. “We tested a black board to replace a wood board we were using [for a dish] and found, when we tested it, that after standing under the heat lamps, it was very hot for our service team to carry,” explains Hirji. “We will start testing something in one location and get feedback…and from there we will roll it out to everywhere.”