Menu Engineering Made Easy

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Bar and restaurant operators give a lot of thought to the items on their menus. Which cocktails work well together? Which foods complement them?

But the design of the actual menu itself is often an afterthought, and it’s not created to optimize sales and boost profits for the establishment.

“Many operators put items on the menu that they like, as opposed to creating signature items that appeal to the specific constituencies they want to attract,” says Arlene Spiegel, a restaurant consultant in New York City.

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Gregg Rapp, a menu engineer in Palm Springs, Calif., says making a menu into a price list is an error he too often sees. This is just the items with the prices on the right side, all lined up.

“I like to put the menu description and then a period and two spaces, and then the price, in the same font. A period is important because it strengthens a menu, just a bit; otherwise it’s just hanging. When the prices aren’t lined up, and a person is looking for the cheapest option, they have to dig a bit. When there’s a price list, it almost forces the guest to search by price.”

Menus should serve as tour guides, so operators should place items in categories—such as Small Plates, Pitchers, Cocktails—to help guests navigate the menu and make selections faster.

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Spiegel also suggests creating a “halo” on a few items in each category and calling out important attributes, such as a small-batch distiller, housemade bitters, local food, and grass-fed beef.

Rapp says some items should be highlighted and calls them “stars.” These items are the highest in popularity and profitability. He suggests four ways to highlight them:

  1. Write a longer description. The more you write, the more value you give to the item.
  2. Box the item to direct the eye.
  3. Include a photo/illustration of the item. Personally, he prefers illustrations “because they have more fantasy than photos. The latest research on photos is that when a person sees a photo, they ‘taste’ the item a little. The first bite is better than the tenth bite. So with a photo, you’re tasting the item, so when it comes, it’s not as good.”
  4. Use a signature spotlight. An asterisk logo in front of the item will bring attention to it.

For the descriptions, Rapp says it’s all about balance and customers don’t want to read too much. But, writing a description gives an item more value. “The price goes down and the value goes up in the guest's mind,” he points out. Choose the highest-profit items: “The description should be on the items you want to sell.”

It’s a good idea to offer separate menus for some items, too, Spiegel says. Doing so allows guests to focus on the stage of the meal and cuts through the clutter of menus that are too big. “And it keeps the excitement for the next course,” she adds.

Beers, wines and cocktails can go together, and should be presented when guests are seated, if they’re eating. Coffee/tea/dessert drinks should be presented after a meal and can be combined with the dessert menu, she advises. For the food menu, the only beverages included should be beer and wine, she cautions.

Menu pricing should be round figures to make it easy ($10 instead of $9.99) and dollar signs should be left off so the amount doesn’t seem like money. It also means less clutter on your menu. “The menu looks more expensive when there are dollar signs next to prices,” says Rapp. “It softens the prices when you remove them.” 

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As for the design of the menu itself, it’s extremely important. Menus range from calligraphy on quality paper to laminated reusable menus. “Whatever the choice, it needs to reflect the attitude of the brand and the experience the guest is expecting,” Spiegel says. “Colors should be kept to a minimum and lettering/fonts should be easy to read.”

And if you want your menu to really stand out and make an impression, do something different. Spiegel points to a fine-casual restaurant in New York that focuses on local foods. It features a map on the menu that identifies the location of many of the farms and artisans from which the menu is sourced. At another restaurant, Rapp points out, an operator wanted to sell a 50-foot yacht. So, he listed the New York steak with the yacht and a bottle of wine for $425,000. He then listed the New York steak without the Yacht for $43, right under the expensive item.

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