The curb appeal of your restaurant can only go so far in drawing in guests. The actual heavy lifting is done by the menu.
How do you write a menu that drives up your profits? Learning how to make a restaurant menu work like a sales representative requires understanding how much potential your menu has in the first place.
A menu effortlessly accomplishes what all advertising campaigns can only dream of: it holds the attention of every patron or potential patron who wanders into your funnel. This means your menu may be the greatest weapon for increasing profits of any item in your arsenal.
Most restaurants do not take full advantage of their menu's potential. This is astounding, because it is the ultimate low-hanging fruit in the restaurant industry, giving you the chance to thoughtfully showcase both your brand and your food.
Restaurants who engineer their menus can see up to a 15 percent increase in profits right away.
This is because, when customers read menus, they are subconsciously reacting to all its details: the feel of the paper, the mood of the font, the tone of the wording and the cost of the items. These details add up to a visceral experience, and in the case of potential customers, a split-second decision. You want the result of that decision to be, "Let's eat here!"
What is Menu Engineering?
Menu engineering involves taking a strategic, step-by-step approach to maximizing the power of your menu. It starts with paying careful attention to each item and answering the following questions:
- How profitable is the item?
- How popular is the item?
The answers to these questions will affect how you present the item and where you place it on the menu. Re-engineering your menu pays off not only because it is immediately profitable, but also because it is a practice you can apply and continue to perfect as you go along.
The determining factor on whether menu engineering will work does not depend on the type of restaurant — it depends on the amount of time and effort you put into it. There's no doubt about it: taking the following steps will require a time investment. However, at the end of the process, you'll be left with a menu that actively works with your customers' natural tendencies, not against them.
We'll be breaking the menu engineering process into these steps:
- Costing your menu
- Categorizing menu items
- Designing your menu
- Writing effective menu item descriptions
- Menu layout and configuration
- Understanding customer eye movement patterns on menus
- Testing your menus
By following these steps, you put your most profitable and popular items in places where customers naturally tend to look first. There are parts of the menu people avoid and parts they tend to hover on. Having a firm understanding of which items earn the most profit gives you a more proactive ability to decide where they should appear on the page.
Step 1: Costing Your Menu
This first item is the most important part of this whole process. Costing your menu involves taking every menu item and adding up the exact cost of its production. Note that you must account for everything to the nearest penny — how many ounces of meat, rice, spices and everything else that goes into it — in order to do this effectively. Do not take labor into consideration for this step. What you are concerned with is merely the price of the raw materials going into each dish.
We recommend that whoever begins the process of costing the menu should follow-through with the menu engineering process to the end. Having an intricate knowledge of the ingredients comprising each menu item is extremely valuable during the rest of the process. There is also a relativistic factor at play. Different people will not cost menus the same way, leading to inconsistent takes on profitability.
You'll be comforted to know that four out of five restaurants do not cost their menus, and 25 percent of those who do cost their menus do so the wrong way.
This process takes time, but the fortunate side effect is that it puts you ahead of 80 percent of your competition. The more care you put into it, the better off you will be.
Once you have accounted for the costs of every item on your menu, it's time to plan out your sales mix.
What Is a Sales Mix in a Restaurant?
Also referred to as a "menu mix," the sales mix predicts the cost of your food as compared to the margin of profit you'll make off of it. This is a helpful metric for judging the predicted cost of your food and the profit you'll make after you've sold it. Furthermore, it allows you to compare your projected costs to the actual costs after serving the item.
As an example of a sales mix, let's say you are comparing two items: a filet mignon and chicken alfredo. The filet mignon costs $12 to make, but you will sell it for $24. The chicken alfredo costs $4 and you will sell for $12. That means each filet mignon nets you $12, while each chicken alfredo nets you $8.
Let's say you sell 900 filet mignons and just 100 alfredo. That would mean your sales mix showed a net of $11,600. On the other hand, if the filet were a poor seller at just 100 sold and the alfredo flew off the shelves at 900 sold, you'd show a net of just $8,400.
The point of this example is to illustrate that it's not always the best idea to prioritize food that costs you less. There is more overhead with expensive items like filet mignon, but there can be a bigger payoff. Avoid falling prey to the notion that you should always prioritize low-cost food.
Step 2: Categorize the Items on Your Menu
After you've priced out your items, the next step is deciding how to categorize your restaurant menu. Menu item placement is paramount to a successful menu engineering effort, and it starts with organizing your items into categories and sub-categories.
Categories are the top level of organization. For instance, a menu might contain the categories "Starters," "Main Courses," "Drinks" and "Desserts." The next step is to break these into sub-categories. When doing this, keep in mind the branding of your establishment. You can use the sub-categories to emphasize your brand and tie in the whole experience. One example would be an English pub whose menu played on British slang or popular tourist sites.
Some examples of sub-categories are:
- Starters: Hot Starters, Cold Starters
- Main Courses: Salads, Seafood, Pasta Dishes, Sandwiches, Burgers, Vegetarian Dishes
- Drinks: Wine, Beer, Cocktails, Non-Alcoholic Drinks
- Desserts: Tarts, Ice Cream
It can be helpful to make a spreadsheet to organize your menu items accordingly.
How to Create a Priority Graph
A priority graph helps decide the first and last items on a menu. Start with an x-axis and a y-axis. On the x-axis is profitability and on the y-axis is popularity.
In the upper right-hand corner of the graph are dishes that are both popular and profitable, while the lower left-hand corner holds dishes that are neither high in profits nor popular. For the sake of simplicity, we'll give names to four of these quadrants:
- Flagships: In the upper right-hand quadrant of the graph are the Flagship dishes, which are both wildly popular and highly profitable.
- Boardwalk: In the upper left-hand quadrant are the Boardwalk dishes, which are still wildly popular but do not create significant profits.
- Hidden Gems: In the lower right-hand quadrant lie the Hidden Gem dishes, which are quite profitable despite lacking great popularity.
- No Zone: The No Zone dishes lie in the bottom left quadrant and are neither popular nor profitable.
Use this priority graph to group your menu items, but do so in category groupings. That is, place all of your Starters on the quadrants, then your Main Courses, and so on. This allows you to prioritize the items in each category. Then, work through your sub-categories, if applicable.
Once you've identified the most popular and profitable items in each section, it will be clear which items to prioritize on your menu. There is a natural temptation to get rid of No Zone dishes, but consider such decisions carefully. A kid's menu item might be a No Zone dish, and even though it is not making you rich, it may be the reason a parent came in and ordered a $25 filet mignon.
Now that you have your list, you're ready to start designing your menu.
Step 3: Designing Your Menu
The most obvious first step in designing your restaurant menu layout is identifying your star players — that is, your Flagship dishes. However, there is so much more to creating a well-engineered menu than simply highlighting the Flagship dishes.
To start, leave your dishes aside for a moment and consider some qualitative observations about your restaurant. What drives people to dine with you? Is it the happy hour drinks, the seafood, the ambiance? How much time do they spend reading your menu? Is there a general prominent demographic that you serve or is it widely varied? What sort of atmosphere exists in the restaurant? What is the decor like? Spending time giving these questions careful thought will help as we move through the following steps.
Let's now consider how restaurant menu spacing affects readers' perusal of your dishes. The human eye can get easily overwhelmed by a surplus of information. That's why utilizing negative space, or space that contains nothing in it, can actually draw the eye. Many menus attempt to cram in as much information as possible, which leaves the eye yearning for a break from visual stimuli.
The best way to utilize this technique is with moderation. Specifically, if you have a Flagship item and want to draw attention to it, surround it with negative space. This method is a great way to highlight your most profitable and popular item in each sub-category.
How to Use Photographs, Fonts & Lists
Any menu design techniques you use will begin to lose their effectiveness if they are used more than once. Keep that in mind as you begin to lay out photographs, negative spaces and other visual tactics in your menu.
One of the biggest items to consider is the use of photographs. First of all, fancier restaurants should avoid photographs altogether, since they cheapen the menu's overall appearance. They do work, though. If used in the proper scenario — think of a cafe, sports bar or casual restaurant — they have been shown to boost the sales of their respective dishes by up to 30 percent. However, photographs are most susceptible of all to the law of diminishing returns — you should not include more than one per page.
Fonts, sizes and colors can also be used to great effect. The general rules of thumb are to not mix more than two typefaces, to make sure they are sufficiently different so as not to be mistaken for one another and to let one take the lead. Color can also be used as an accent effect. Picking one color to highlight important words or Flagship dishes can provide a nice pop. Avanti Printing offers graphic design services to help restaurants create the perfect layouts.
Readers view lists differently than most people expect. The first items in a list get the most attention, followed by the last item on the list, followed by those in the middle. For this reason, it's a good idea to place your top-rated Flagship item first on the list, then your second-rated item last. Place others in order in the middle of the list. Also, keep lists short. If you have more than six or seven items in one, you should break your menu into more sub-categories. Otherwise, those middle items are going to get no attention whatsoever.
One final important rule of thumb: don't drop a list of prices down the side of the page. Customers' eyes will naturally hover on the prices and may result in them choosing the cheapest one on the menu. You want them to focus entirely on the food descriptions. The price should come at the end of the descriptions and should not include a dollar sign.
Step 4: Writing Effective Menu Item Descriptions
The best menu descriptions use language that paints an image. That's an understatement, though — great menus work hard to make mouths water with the power of the written word. Food descriptions are ultimately what sell the food, and they are responsible for yet another 30 percent increase in sales.
Generally, you want to have some good adjectives on hand. Here are some wonderful food adjectives to describe a range of different dishes:
A "salmon filet" doesn't sound quite as delicious as a "pan-seared salmon filet." Those extra words put an image in our mind that gets our stomachs hungry. Descriptive language should not be overused, however — it's easy to clog up your writing with too many adjectives. Remember the law of diminishing returns.
There are plenty of other useful descriptors besides qualitative adjectives, though. You can attach geographical appeal to food descriptions with words like "Italian," "Mediterranean" and "Cajun." You can also qualify food items with descriptors like "home-style," "age-old recipe" or "small-batch" to add character and appeal to the food items. If a meat or seafood item is grass-fed, free-range, wild-caught or described by any other buzzword, make sure to include it as well.
Learning how to write menu descriptions just takes some practice. Here are some examples of menu descriptions:
- Jumbo Shrimp 'n' Grits: A generous helping of Grandma's steel-cut grits, rich with homemade flavor and topped with five tender, wild-caught jumbo shrimp.
- Meatloaf and Mashed Potatoes: Mouth-watering meatloaf wrapped in crispy bacon and drizzled in a smoky, tangy sauce. Served over a bed of garlic-butter russet mashed potatoes and seared asparagus spears.
Step 5: Menu Layout and Configuration
The menu cover configuration will give the first impression as to what customers will find inside. Make sure the cover reflects the aesthetic of the establishment, as it will be a decoration on every single table until customers pick it up and open it.
Here are the different options for restaurant menu configurations:
- One-Panel Menu: This is a classy move to be sure but looks elegant in both fancy restaurants and casual spots alike. The downside is that it does not seem to encourage people to order multiple items. This ultimately means less profit from your guests.
- Two-Panel Menu: Going by the numbers, the two-panel menu is the best restaurant menu style. If you can fit all of your dishes comfortably into two panels, you should — it's the perfect balance between variety and concision. The two-panel menu also makes dining feel like more of an experience.
- Three-Panel Menu: If you simply have too many items to fit onto a two-panel menu, try to get them onto a three-panel menu. This option makes it easy for guests to read, but it still does not have the track record of the two-panel menu.
- Large Restaurant Menu: A large restaurant menu has many pages to flip through and lots of options to choose from. Let's reiterate something here: menu engineering is the act of guiding and influencing your customers' decisions. The more pages there are, the less effectively you can guide them.
Step 6: Understanding Customer Eye Movement Patterns on Menus
Understanding how we read restaurant menus — or, more specifically, our eye movement patterns and "scan paths" as we peruse them — is a lovely tool to have in your kit. As it turns out, our eyes do somewhat predictable things when they fall on a menu page.
It has long been believed that there is a "sweet spot" in menus — that is, a spot our eyes naturally gravitate towards as soon as we see the page. This sweet spot is thought to be in the upper right-hand quadrant of the page. However, more recent research with retinal eye scanners seems to reveal that we read menus more like a book. We seem to start at the top of the first page and work our way down, doing a bit of scanning mostly on the last page.
This new research has not convinced everyone, though. If you are a believer in the sweet spot, it doesn't hurt to try putting a featured item in the upper right.
Step 7: Testing Your Menus
Your first attempt won't be perfect. Your second one likely won't, either. That's completely normal — and it's why you should continuously test your menus and track their performance.
If you have a multi-chain restaurant, you can test different versions of the same menu simultaneously — but it's generally best to try tweaking the menu every so often and taking note of the results. Remember that your menu is your advertisement and that everyone is going to read it. It's advisable to always seek improvements.
Profitability of a Proper Menu
A properly engineered, improved menu design will increase revenue by driving customers toward your most profitable and popular items. Here are the benefits of a properly conceived menu:
- Increased restaurant profits
- A better understanding of costs with sales mix data
- A basis for comparing projected costs with actual costs
- A more sleek and pleasing menu
- A launchpad for testing new menu designs
Menu Printing With Avanti Printing
Here at Avanti Printing, we're known for completing high-quality restaurant menu printing with quick turnaround times and at the right price. We know that finding a high-quality printer goes a long way toward achieving a certain look and feel for new menus, and we're here whenever you want to test new menus. We love establishing relationships with our clients and working with them to produce the perfect product.
Contact us online or give us a call for a custom quote for your next menu design. Looking for help with the design? We can do that too! Our professional designers are available to help put together a new menu layout.