If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the years in the food industry, it’s that every menu is some restaurateur’s baby. That can be a problem. Yes, your menu is the heart and soul of what a chef and owner want to put out into the world, but your menu is also key to ensuring you make money when you do. This dual reality can sometimes be difficult to reconcile.
There’s an inclination to be precious about every item listed on your menu, but at the end of the day, when everything is special, nothing is. It’s important to recognize opportunities for bigger profit, and identify ways to structure your menu not just to attract new customers, but to keep those customers coming back for more — again and again.
Restaurant menu engineer Gregg Rapp discussed just that this year at the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago with a session entitled, “Menu Engineering: Build Profitability, Value, and Guest Return.” Chock full of recommendations for how all restaurants — large and small — can increase their revenue through careful menu planning, Rapp’s presentation laid out some basic do’s and don’ts for arranging your menu items, naming, and how to make some things stand out (and others not!).
First things first: know what you have.
Before you work on revising your menu layout, it’s important to understand how every single item on your menu actually works for you in terms of profit and popularity. You’ll likely find some dishes from all four categories of items: Plow horse, star, dog, and puzzle.
Plow horse: low profit, high popularity
This could be your soup and salad lunch special, a one topping pizza, or that draft beer that seems to pull people in after work day after day. The plow horses are items that you probably sell a whole lot of, because they are priced sensitively for consumers who aren’t looking to spend a lot in one sitting but then inevitably become frequent, repeat customers as a result. Try to keep plow horses available and stable in price for as long as possible to keep pulling those repeat customers in.
Star: high profit, high popularity
These are the items that may be unique to your establishment, maybe even a dish your restaurant is known for. You can take them up in price (within reason), and people will still buy them. Why? Because they can’t get them anywhere else. This could be a version of a popular dish made with higher quality or more unique ingredients — like pork belly dim sum — or a dish that very few restaurants have on their menus — like poutine or broasted chicken.
Dog: Low profit, low popularity
These menu items not only take up space that a more profitable item could be using, but on the off chance they get ordered, these items are now stealing sales from your stars and puzzles. Try to get dogs off your menu, as fast as possible. If for some reason, you absolutely must keep them on, add $1 or $2 to the price. Make them worth your while.
Puzzle: High profit, low popularity
These are those dishes that should sell better, but why they don’t is a real mystery to you. Don’t take them off the menu. Just try to figure out how to sell more of them. Maybe take the price down a little, or give it better placement on your menu. If you play around with the recipe, remember not to damage their profitability, but only do things that will make a dish sell better.
Puzzles are likely to benefit most from the following ideas for making your menu more profitable and attractive to repeat customers:
List items out.
How you list menu items is critical to influencing the choices your customers make.
- Always arrange your dishes in a given section by most profitable to least profitable — NOT by most expensive to least. Your most expensive dish could also have your highest food cost.
- Exception to this rule: put menu items together that feel right, for instance: Cheese Quesadilla and Chipotle Chicken Quesadilla.
- Putting five items per section (appetizer, salad, entree, sandwich, etc.) is optimal. Seven is the maximum. Offer more choices than that and diners will frequently default to what they know or had last time, which is not necessarily your most profitable item.
- Use a single column per menu page. The simpler the layout, the less distracted your customers get. The more columns, the less control you have over where your customers’ eyes will roam.
- If your menu is a single panel (no folds), only print on one side. Half of your customers will never even turn the menu over if you print on both sides.
- If your menu is two-panel (single fold), put your star items at the top center of the right panel. Your customers’ gaze will spiral out counter-clockwise from there. Note: Studies have shown customers spend more on two-panel menus than one.
- Also, if you have a daily special insert separate from your printed menu, expect that 60 percent of your entree sales will come from there. Use this as an opportunity to upsell.
Think carefully about names.
The easier a menu is to read, the more your customers are going to order — and the happier they’ll be with their choice.
- Create a new name for your items that brands it apart from the rest, but still defines what it is. “Joe’s Special” doesn’t really draw a customer in at first glance. But “Aunt Josephine’s Old World Sicilian Lasagna” gives a dish personality and a provenance.
- Always use a dish’s full name, even if part of that name is the same as the category. For example, “Buffalo Chicken Salad” and “Cobb Salad” rather than “Buffalo Chicken” and “Cobb.”
- Pedigree your items with mention of high-quality ingredients in their descriptions. Including the name of well-known brand names (“…with Ghirardelli Chocolate,”) or farms can give a dish instant cache. But double check individual brands’ copyright guidelines.
- Generally, the more ingredients you can easily list on your menu per dish, the better. Not only will it ensure those with allergies have a heads up, but it adds to the allure of the dish. Every ingredient could be someone’s favorite.
- Attach more descriptive copy to your more profitable items. As the allure and value of the dish goes up in a consumer’s head, the price of the dish seems more reasonable.
- Don’t boast about secret ingredients in the descriptions — studies show people taste what you tell them they’re tasting. Your customers will never credit you for ingenuity without clues to do so.
- Include meaningful testimonials. If a particular dish received a write-up in a prominent magazine, won a State Fair blue ribbon, or was featured on a television show, by all means call it out!
Spotlight your stars.
Displaying a signature spotlight on your menu is a great way to drive interest to a particular item that’s “highly recommended by our chef” (or accountants). Box that dish in to make it stand out among the others. This technique draws the eye in and can make the work of scanning a menu less arduous for the diners’ weary eyes. But like anything else, the more you use this trick, the less it means. Limit your spotlight items to one per menu category.
Occasionally, restaurants will also feature decoys — items that would so rarely get ordered that it seems silly to leave them on the menu, like a 72oz steak or a banana split with 12 kinds of ice cream served in a kitchen sink. So why feature them? Because these types of extreme menu offerings can get your customers’ brain moving. You might not order a steak as big as your head, but just reading about it might put you in the mood for a much more reasonably priced (and profitable) 20oz Prime Rib.
Draw customers in.
Yes, keeping your menu clean and easy to read means eliminating distractions. But like spotlight items, drawn graphics can help pull the customers’ eyes across your menu page when used sparingly.
- Consider designing a special logo or sophisticated graphic for your premium signature item. It tells the client that a certain item is so great, it was worth the effort of making a logo.
- Use custom illustrations (not clip art) to give your customers that “OH WOW!” experience before they even take their first bite. Drawings will always have the advantage over photographs, because they let the viewer insert their own expectations into the experience.
- In fact, poorly executed photos can do serious damage to your brand. A bad photograph can make your amazing food look the same as everyone else’s, if not worse.
- However, seeing an appetizing photo of your food can let the diner psychologically “taste” the item before ordering. However, the dish will never taste as good in reality as it did in their head after seeing it in a photograph. This is why photos might work best on a website that customers peruse hours or days before a visit — not so much minutes before a dish is set in front of them.
- If you are adamant about using photographs on your menu — or feel an item is so unique it requires one, just don’t overdo them. When there’s a photo on every item, you’re leveling the visual playing field, not getting benefit of increased interest on any particular items.
Ultimately, how you build your restaurant’s website can be just as important as how you design your menu. Download our free eBook “The Guide to a Successful Restaurant Website” today to learn more about what you can do to capture that new customer where they live — online!