The Art of the Simple Menu

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In the world of restaurants and bars there is nothing quite as important as your menu. It is part marketing tool, part profitability indicator, and all brand identity. Your menu is the one thing everyone who comes in contact with your concept is guaranteed to see.

Sadly, too many menus are written out from the ego. It is a statement of who you are. In a world vying for your attention, your menu can be a double-edged sword to get that attention.

Used properly it can get you profits and a steady stream of patrons. Used foolishly it becomes a game of cat and mouse, with you being the poor mouse.

The Problem with Ego

Your ego is the brakes that hold you back from getting the results you truly want. The ego tells you that you know enough, so you stop learning. The ego says your menu is awesome, so you ignore the data and keep driving ahead. Just remember that even those long roads in the desert have curves.

When your ego drives the menu, you become blind to the facts. Emotion is ego’s second cousin and it rides shotgun on this trip. Maybe you have heard some of these sayings:

  • The guest doesn’t get it.
  • My staff can’t sell it.
  • It’s my best seller (when the POS data clearly shows it’s not).
  • I won’t sacrifice my craft for people who don’t get want I am trying to do.

Yes, the ego says some batshit crazy things.

Once upon a time there was a young chef who thought that his artistic integrity was everything. What, you want the demi glacé on the side? No. You want to substitute sautéed spinach for haricot vert? Get out.

One day the young chef was called into the owner’s office to have a “little talk.” It went something like this:

Owner: You know, I think your food is amazing and so do many of our guests.

Young Chef: Thank you.

Owner: Here’s the problem I have.

Young Chef (now getting nervous): What problem?

Owner: Well, you know how you won’t make substitutions or allow guests to alter your dishes in any way?

Young Chef: Yes. The food was designed to be a perfect balance of texture and flavors. I even had the severs take the salt and pepper off the table because I saw the guests were seasoning the food without tasting it! Drives me crazy!

Owner: Yeah, well, you see, if people can’t make changes to fit their needs then they won’t come back. If they won’t come back, I won’t be able to pay you.

Young Chef: So, you’re saying this restaurant doesn’t exist for my self-promotion but for the needs of the guests?

Owner: Yeah. Oh, and put the salt and pepper back on the table.

While the shocking revelation hit the young chef hard, it was a liberation in the sense that he learned the true meaning of hospitality that evening. It’s about the other person, not you. That young chef never forgot that valuable lesson and it’s been said that he went on to become a restaurant coach and even wrote a book (hint hint).

The Art of Simplicity 

If you have never had the pleasure of eating at In-N-Out Burger you are missing a perfect example of simplicity in action. The brand was founded in 1948 in Baldwin, California. The menu was created to get you in and out with your food in record time.

In 70 years, while prices have definitely changed, the menu surprisingly has not changed very much. It still has just 8 items.

Now, before you scoff or turn your nose up at the very small menu, take in the fact that, on average, each In-N-Out location takes in over $2M. Multiple that by 335 locations and you have an empire.

Stop Adding to Your Menu

You might be bored with your menu since you see it day after day. The temptation to change things that become repetitive is human nature. Here’s a tip: Don’t fix what is not broken!

You might be bored making that same Roasted Poblano Meatloaf or that Silver Coin Margarita. The real question you need to ask is: Are your guests bored with it? If sales are not declining then it’s not broken. Stop adding things to your menu that compete with your high profit items.

When we give the guest too many options we give them a problem that psychologist Barry Schwartz identifies as the Paradox of Choice. Too many options and people will experience anxiety about making the right choice. When people get confused about making the right choice they fall back to the safe choice, which is usually the Caesar salad with chicken.

Start Talking Away Items

It takes courage to go against your ego and start to strip away the fat from your menu. It’s a challenge to suppress your ego and create a menu that not only serves the guest, it makes money.

Read this: Wake Up Your Menu

Here are some wise words to place in your office when working on your next menu:

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." - Antoine de Saint-Exupery

When you can dial in your menu to where all menu items finally sell pretty evenly, then and only then will you have mastered the art of the simple menu. Until then, keep your eyes on the data, make adjustments frequently, and keep your ego locked in the back room.

You can let your ego out after work to get some fresh air, but don’t feed it after midnight or bad things happen. Trust me on that one.

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