Liliana’s owner Dave Heide has been in the news often over the last year as he ramps up plans to open a pay-what-you-can, nonprofit café called Little John’s.
As Heide planned that project, he began to look at Liliana’s Restaurant, his 12-year-old New Orleans-inspired spot in Fitchburg, with new eyes. Starting this week, Liliana’s will debut a redesigned menu with smaller plates and lower prices.
Heide says the changes were inspired by some of the issues Little John’s will focus on, including less wasted food.
“Seeing how much food is thrown out from so many people everyday at Liliana’s just showed that our portion sizes were too big, or that people got burned out on a particular flavor,” said Heide in an email. “Being able to see the scale that we are throwing food away has been a huge driver for change at all of my restaurants.”
Heide opened Liliana’s Restaurant in 2007 and followed up with Charlie’s on Main in Oregon in 2016. He’s since bought out all investors at Liliana’s save his parents, and he was ready to shake things up.
“We want our whole menu to change with the seasons more,” Heide said. “Being open for 12 years now, a lot of the dishes became too comfortable. I stopped looking how to innovate with different seasonal ingredients.”
The way people choose to eat is changing too, he said. He believes diners have moved away from coursed meals (appetizer, entrée, dessert) and big plates of carbs. Heide compared it to a bag of Doritos — the first one makes you salivate, but the fourth one isn’t as great. By the tenth, you’re probably not even enjoying them anymore.
“I noticed the same thing with the jambalaya at Liliana’s,” Heide said. “People loved the first five bites, but after that they finished it because they paid for it, not necessarily because they were loving every bite.”
The new menu has some of the same flavors portioned as “shareables” or small plates. A $17 portion of jambalaya is now a $10 plate. The “veggie Liliana” pasta with red pepper cream sauce will be an $11 portion instead of $18. And there are new dishes too, like slow-smoked cauliflower steaks ($20), chargrilled broccolini ($6) and brown sugar and rosemary-roasted sweet potatoes ($6).
Heide hopes smaller plates will encourage more diners to give things a try. Any dish over $20 is scrutinized by diners, he said, and people are wary of committing to a whole plate of something they have not had before.
That goes for wine too. 12 years ago, Heide said, wine by the bottle made up 35% of his alcohol sales. Now it’s less than 3%.
“People want tastes, or glasses across a wider array, and are more wary about committing to a whole bottle,” he said.
So Liliana’s will shrink its wine list from 350 wines “that almost never sold through” to 35 wines by the glass and 65 on the Coravin, a wine preservation system that allows for more high-end wines to be poured over a longer period of time. Wines will be available for 2 ounce tastes and 5 ounce pours as well as by the bottle.
The lower level speakeasy at Charlie’s on Main gave a clue about where the cocktail menu should go. Liliana’s new cocktails will be “a throwback to traditional New Orleans drinks, with a modern twist.”
Finally, some of Little John’s environmental focus will carry over to Liliana’s. Little John’s plans to use grocery store castoffs and farmer seconds as ingredients to build its menu. Liliana’s has removed plastic straws from service and has made all disposables recyclable or biodegradable.
“People have all heard of the phrase ‘reduce, reuse, recycle,’ but most of us recycle and ignore the other two,” Heide said. “The other two are what are important for long term sustainability, so that is what we are focusing on.”