For many restaurant owners, the question of what to put on their menu is simple. “More is more” is a common mantra among those concerned with satisfying a wide spectrum of tastes and preferences. After all, if you put on all the dishes that you can on your menu, your customers can select the exact dish they want. Everyone wins, right?
Well … the Jam Study says otherwise. Published in 2000, this study by psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper explored the dynamic between number of choices and sales.
Two displays were put up, each on a different day. The first display had 24 different kinds of jam – anyone who tried a jam was given a $1 coupon. The second display had the same deal, except the jam varieties went down to six. While the 24 item display seemed to gather more attention, people at the six item display were 10 times more likely to buy.
While “the Paradox of Choice” is a complicated topic and you should look at various factors when adjusting your menu, there are several benefits to simplifying your menu that affect your guests, your staff, and your bottom line.
In some ways, offering too many choices causes the most problems for quick serve and fast casual restaurants. Whether ordering at the cash register or in the drive-thru, guests confronted with an overwhelming menu — especially first time visitors — can slow down your line of customers.
Having long lines might make you look popular, but lines that are too long can also deter potential customers passing by from waiting to order. And as the Jam Study indicates, there’s also the chance that the guest will give up and leave without ordering anything at all.
And it’s not just quick serve/fast casual establishments that have to worry about too many menu items. While social pressure makes guests of casual or fine dining establishments far less likely to leave before ordering, indecisiveness driven by large menu size can still cause problems.
A guest needing more time to choose means more touch points for the server with the customer, more complex timing for the server to the kitchen, that much longer for the order to be put in, more time until the meal is served, and less opportunity for the table to be turned over. Fewer table turns every night means fewer checks paid, and that means less profit. But it’s not just a revenue problem.
Going out to eat should be enjoyable, but trying to take in all the different choices on a menu and paring down the choices before the server comes back can be nerve-wracking and hurt the overall experience for your customers.
Overcomplicated menus can be a strain on both serving and kitchen staff, as well. Servers should be able to answer a reasonable number of menu questions guests might have, but that part of the job gets much harder if there are dozens and dozens of items they’ll need to memorize.
Meanwhile, back of house employees need to be trained consistently in how to prepare every item on the menu. Cooks become experts at dishes when they’re able to make them repeatedly during service. It throws a wrench into a shift when a random menu item that’s rarely ordered (but remains on the menu anyway) gets ordered.
Of course, overloading your menu presents another big problem: it could muddle your brand. Let’s say you’re a Chinese fast casual restaurant. You have traditional Chinese cuisine, but you’ve also decided to include American staples: pizza, spicy chicken wings, French fries, etc.
While it might seem like a good idea (“something for everyone”) to offer variety, the message your guests could receive is that your kitchen isn’t confident enough in the cuisine they should be making. Every item on your menu should reinforce your core brand in one way or another. It is a better strategy to build your brand on your excellent Chinese dishes, rather than trying to be everything for everyone.
Besides which, the food cost for ingredients that are only used in one dish can be prohibitive, which is not unlikely if a dish strays outside your core brand. If you find that dish is rarely picked by guests, the ingredients could spoil before you ever get around to using them. Then you’ll have to reorder that ingredient from your vendor so it’s on hand in the off chance someone will order it.
Ultimately, large menus run the risk of hiding the best items from your establishment. If one of the restaurant’s best dishes is buried among a plethora of other choices, guests might glance over that section without realizing it’s even there.
What could be the entrée your restaurant becomes known for through word of mouth isn’t highlighted enough on the menu and you’ve just missed your golden opportunity to stand out.
Want to expand the versatility (and profitability) of your menu without diluting your brand? Consider the big business of small plates: