It’s not enough to have delicious food — your customers need to be intrigued enough by your menu to order. Alongside server recommendations, menu descriptions are the most prominent influence in what ultimately gets ordered in your restaurant. And having compelling menu descriptions is even more important in the internet age, when potential guests might be deciding between you and your competition, based off the items on each menu.
You should have each of your menu descriptions be about the same length. It doesn’t have to be perfectly equal, but you don’t want one item’s description to be significantly longer than the rest. This will help keep your menu organized and let the descriptions come through without other distractions.
Also, keep your menu descriptions fairly short. Most items should feature maybe one or two lines, although that can vary depending on what kind of restaurant you have. If you’re an upscale or fine dining establishment, then you can get away with longer descriptions. Just be careful not to risk losing your guests’ attention by making them scan a paragraph per item.
On the other hand, if you operate a fast casual restaurant and have a menu board, then brevity is your friend. You want customers to be able to quickly read through their choices and make their decision, so they don’t hold up the line.
List the ingredients.
This may seem self-explanatory, but you make sure to put all the main ingredients of a dish into its description. With so many food allergies affecting consumers today, you want to ensure your guests know exactly what they’re ordering.
Plus, giving fuller menu descriptions of each dish’s contents just provides your guest with a better idea of what they’ll be getting. One might be torn between two different entrees, but seeing their favorite vegetable listed in the description could be the deciding factor. On the other hand, if your take on poutine switches out French fries for potato chips and you don’t explain this on the menu, a guest could order it expecting a traditional version of the dish and get something they didn’t expect.
Keep it sensory.
More than anything there should be a focus on taste and texture in your menu descriptions. Are the vegetables caramelized? Is the pork loin pan seared? Is the salad topped with toasted almonds for a crunch? The language you use is all about enticing your guests. Focusing on sensory elements (especially taste, of course) makes your dishes sound extra appealing.
Just be sure to choose words your target customers know. If the name of the dish is uncommon for your marketplace, provide menu descriptions to explain what the item is in easy-to-imagine ways. While a Mexican restaurant can get away with simply listing the fillings for burritos and tacos, it might be worth it to explain what huaraches actually are to the potentially uninitiated, as well as what makes up their filling. Many customers will be too sheepish to ask your server if they can’t figure out what the dish is, and will simply order something else… or order less.
Lean into tradition.
If one of your recipes is based off a family recipe or your cultural tradition, why not highlight it? If your family has roots in Italy and this is your time-tested risotto, describing the dish as such can only strengthen the appeal. Similarly, mentioning in the description that the chicken pot pie is adapted from your Aunt Jenny’s recipe could get their attention. It plays into the nostalgia of homemade meals and gives your restaurant some added personality. Additionally, this type of personalization tells your guest that this dish has been repeatedly made and perfected over the years, adding to its allure.
Focus on health.
Restaurants with healthy dishes will want to highlight the health benefits of those foods. Unfortunately, the word healthy has become a synonym for bland in the minds of many consumers, so simply putting “healthy” as a descriptor can actually deter guests from ordering. Labeling healthy dishes with a combination of more creative, health-focused, and positive menu descriptions can bring the idea of flavor to the forefront.
If you still want to highlight your healthier dishes, create an easily identifiable symbol for those dishes and put that next to the description instead of writing it out. Just don’t forget to include a key at the bottom of each menu page as a reminder of what the symbol represents, like “low carb” or “heart healthy” options.
Appeal to customer ethics.
Consumers, particularly millennial and younger, are much more aware of ethical eating habits than ever before. They want to know if your fish is line-caught, your poultry is farm-raised, or your vegetables are locally-sourced. This doesn’t necessarily have to be phrasing you use for individual item descriptions, especially if your vendor only sometimes offers these options to you. But a short “about us” on your menu that describes how you actively buy locally sourced, farm-raised, or line caught ingredients can be attractive for guests who lean into these concerns.
Above all, be accurate.
It may be tempting to say your beef stew is a family recipe when it isn’t, or state your produce is still locally sourced when it’s not. But customers come into restaurants with an expectation of trust, and you do not want to lose that trust. Nothing stifles a guest’s excitement more than being served an order that does not line up with its menu description. Whether it’s about the healthiness of the dish or the flavors, being accurate means setting the right expectations for each and every guest every time. And it could help keep you out of hot water on social media and negative reviews, too!
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