How to Amp Up Your Menu

Image: Soifer / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Revisiting your old menu can be an uncomfortable task. Keeping things the same is comfortable and easy. However, comfort and ease don’t make a business more profitable and elevate its status in the marketplace.

Guests can make quality meals in their own kitchens, build their favorite cocktails on a bar cart, or order just about anything they want for delivery. They don’t need to leave their homes to eat and drink.

This shift in consumer behavior, coupled with the threat of delivery-focused disruptors, makes it more important than ever to revisit menus. It may take an operator out of their comfort zone at first but it can also keep them several paces ahead of their competitors.

Just like comfort and ease don’t boost revenue and traffic, neither do excuses. During the 2019 Nightclub & Bar Show in Las Vegas, Chef Brian Duffy delivered an inspiring presentation dedicated to menu change. In his session, Chef Duffy listed the top excuses he encounters when he asks operators why they haven’t changed their menus (sometimes ever):

  1. “I've had the same menu for 10 years and my guests love it.”
  2. “My sales don’t warrant a new menu.”
  3. “My cooks know this menu and I don’t want to spend any more money.”
  4. “My foodservice rep did this menu and I get great pricing.”
  5. “My menu is profitable and easy to execute.”
  6. “My foodservice purveyor did my menu and it’s easy.”

Looking at the first four excuses, the common theme is comfort. The operator doesn’t want to bump their guests out of a perceived comfort zone or push their kitchen staff. They don’t want to lose what they think is preferential treatment or pricing. The operator doesn’t want to admit that their menu is no longer working. The last two excuses are very clear: the operator wants to take the easy road.

Read this: Ace Up Your Sleeve: 5 Down & Dirty Menu Tricks

That’s not to say that menu change doesn’t have its cons. Chef Duffy admitted as much during his session, laying out the cons an operator can face when they decide to change their menu:

  • It costs time and money to train a staff on a new menu.
  • Reprinting menus costs money.
  • Changing a menu takes an operator out of their comfort zone.
  • Guests may become upset that an item they like has been removed.
  • The servers may not embrace the change.
  • Guests may balk at price changes that accompany menu changes.

Fortunately, there are also pros, and they’re promising:

  • Unveiling a new menu provides a profitable marketing and promotions opportunity. It’s a great reason to throw a party.
  • Creating a compelling, exciting new menu can increase guest retention.
  • Excellent potential for exciting the staff, leading to boosted staff retention and improved recruitment.
  • Servers recognize and embrace an opportunity to upsell. Ownership and management should reinforce this opportunity during meetings.
  • Menu changes keep operators, kitchen teams and bar teams fresh and relevant.
  • Changing the menu provides an opportunity for operators to readjust food costs on each item so it reflects current pricing in the market.
  • Becoming known for seasonal or semi-annual menu changes creates consumer anticipation and excitement.

How a menu change should be executed is dependent on the concept. During his session, Chef Duffy showed a pie chart that addressed three menu item categories. He recommended operators analyze their sales to identify top sellers and core items, middle-of-the-road performers, and dead sellers. The top sellers and core items should be kept, of course. Operators have some room to decide which middling items to keep and which to drop, but the dead sellers? Those need to go, advised Chef Duffy.

In fact, removing and replacing dead sellers is the first way Chef Duffy suggests operators change their menus. Chef Duffy also advises operators to track the performance of their featured items so they can keep the successes and toss out the failures. Keeping an item that doesn’t sell because an operator or chef likes it makes no sense—it only matters if guests are buying it.

Operators should also involve their front-of-house staff members, mining them for guest feedback. Guest-facing team members have valuable information regarding what guests really think about menu items: portion size, presentation, taste, etc. Of course, the back-of-house staff should be included in the menu change process. After all, they’re making the food items. BOH team members can also provide an operator with feedback about culinary trends, seasonal ingredients, and exciting ideas they may have themselves for new menu items.

Read this: The Scarfes Bar Drinks Menu: A Master Class in Design

Approaching updated plating and presentations can help an operator make an impactful menu change. Such a maneuver can generate excitement among guests while keeping their familiarity with menu items intact. Seasonal menu changes can generate similar results and keep things fresh.

POS systems are loaded with valuable sales information that help operators identify how well every item on a menu performs. Operators invest significantly in their POS systems so they should wring every bit of use from them as possible. Running and studying reports allows operators to make menu changes based on profitability.

Chef Duffy also recommends going straight to the source for menu item feedback: the guests. Most guests aren’t shy about offering feedback, they just prefer different avenues to providing it. Some will give honest feedback when asked directly by ownership, management or servers. But some are more likely to be honest through more passive means. This is where Chef Duffy comment cards come in to play.

The key to succeeding with comment cards and receiving honest feedback is to avoid using them as a marketing ploy. Operators shouldn’t ask for birthdays, anniversary dates, or mailing addresses. Instead, they should ask questions that show guests their feedback is appreciated:

  • Have you been here before?
  • What brings you here today?
  • What did you order for your meal?
  • Did you receive your order in a timely manner?
  • What are your favorite menu items?
  • What would you like us to offer on our menu?
  • Who was your server?
  • Was your server: Attentive? Informative? Friendly? Prompt?
  • In what area of town do you reside?
  • Do you have any additional comments for us?

The sample comment card Chef Duffy shared during his session had a line for a manager signature that could be torn off the bottom, along with an offer: Return with the signed portion of the comment card and receive a 10-percent discount on the next visit.

As far as where operators can start on their menu change quest, Chef Duffy had several viable suggestions. First, he advises operators to consider smaller portions. Second, offering more sides can boost revenue. Leveraging current flavor trends, salty-spicy-sweet combinations, along with bitter flavors, should perform well. Chef Duffy advises against one-dimensional sweet menu items. Vegetables like brussels sprouts, broccoli rabe, wild mushrooms, cauliflower and root veggies are on trend, but Chef Duffy says operators should stop offering vegetables or starches of the day.

Read this: Transport Your Guests with Globally Inspired Menu Design

Guests have shown that they want more ethnic food items on menus. Chef Duffy has identified several popular options operators can play with and offer to update their menus. Among them are tacos (“Tacos are king,” says Chef Duffy), Israeli flavors and spices (za’atar), Middle Eastern items like falafel, and many Asian items, such as noodles, ramen, spring rolls and eggrolls.

Putting this all together won't be the easiest feat. It will require an operator to set aside their comfort and put a stop to excuses. But the payoff is more than worth it, re-energizing the venue, staff and guests. Fortune favors the bold, as they say, but it also favors the prepared. So, operators should follow the list below of menu change rules and regulations created by Chef Duffy to give themselves the best chances for success.

Go forth, refresh, and conquer!

Chef Duffy's Rules & Regulations

  1. Test all recipes.
  2. Work with purveyors for specs.
  3. Cook with and offer seasonal items.
  4. Have the kitchen staff do run-throughs of all of the items.
  5. Cross-utilize ingredients and menu items to maximize profits and lower costs.
  6. Train FOH Staff on all menu items, including bartenders.
  7. Cost all recipes.
  8. Create the organization.
  9. Update all order sheets.
  10. Update POS systems with new menu items.
  11. Create launch dates for new menu launches and promote them!

Chef Brian Duffy has big plans for the 35th anniversary Nightclub & Bar Show in 2020. Don't miss out on what he has in store for next year's Food & Beverage Innovation Conference. Mark March 30 through April 1, 2020 on your calendar now!

Suggested Articles

At this point in history, we have the opportunity to create lasting change. But, we need to press forward towards a safer, more equal world.

More than ever, we need Congress to help our independent restaurants which are proven to be a foundation of the U.S. economy.

The list has extended to several states and even more counties as COVID-19 cases rise.