By Donald Burns, Foodable Industry Expert
Times are changing, that’s for sure. You have to be pretty blind not to notice the changes affecting the industry — the rise of Chipotle Mexican Grill and the fast-casual model. The better burger model used in chains like Shake Shack and In-N-Out Burger.
Customers today are focused on health, where food is sourced, and menus that are customizable. Food has become a form of self-expression. To some generations, it actually forms part of their identity. They say they shop at Whole Foods and wear it like a badge of honor.
The biggest thing to understand is that customer perception of your brand is everything. The other thing to understand is that to the customer, their perception becomes the reality, whether it’s true or not. That could be good news for you or it could be very bad.
Let’s take a look at some of the perceptions your guests might think are true when they see your 7-panel, 93-item menu:
When a customer sees 93 different items on the menu, it’s very hard to convince them that everything on the menu is fresh. In today’s market, the keyword “fresh” is a necessity.
If you don’t think it’s fair that the guest is judging you on the size of your menu before even trying the food, too bad. Once the guest has formed a perception in their mind, it’s very hard to change that. It’s the same analogy as if food looks good, it must taste good. The human brain takes in millions of bits of information at any given time. In order for our brains to handle this overwhelming data coming in, we learn to process information rather quickly by either deleting it, distorting it, or generalizing it.
This phenomenon was brought to light by psychologist Barry Schwartz. The premise is quite simple: we assume that more choice means better options and greater satisfaction. However, research shows that too many options actually increase anxiety in consumers. Choice overload can make you question the decision many times in your head before your final conclusion and can even cause more anxiety as you question your choice. “I knew I should have gotten the filet.”
The other downside of a large menu with lots of options, is that the guest will finally get frustrated and go for their safe choice. “I’ll just have the chicken.” You could be losing out on selling a higher priced item due to sensory overload with too many menu items.
Take a look at the industry leader, Chipotle. They still have just four main items on their menu: burritos, tacos, burritos bowls, and salads. They offer those four items with 18 optional ingredients which can be put together in 60,000 combinations. Now you don’t walk into a Chipotle and see a menu board with 60,000 items on there.
Your menu does not have to contain every combination of ingredients from your inventory as an entrée. When creating menus, a great question to ask yourself is this: “Just because I can, does that mean I should?”
Longer Wait Times
You might have the fastest kitchen in the world, but once again, when your guest sees a large, elaborate menu, their hopes of getting food quickly goes out with the perception that they will be getting anything “fresh” as well.
In the unlikely event that the food does arrive quickly, you’re just throwing another thought into your customers’ head: this is either pre-cooked or microwaved. Getting your reputation for having Chef Microwave in the back, is usually not very good for business.
Your menu has to reinforce your brand identity or else you risk that blank, puzzled look many customers get when looking at a menu that is scattered and unfocused. Now a little fusion cuisine never hurt anyone. But let’s face it — when your menu jumps around the globe like an episode of “The Amazing Race,” it makes the guest question your specialty. Just remember: if you don’t stand out from the crowd, you just become part of the crowd.
When working on menus, you need to have a signature item that answers this question: “Why do I drive to your place?” If you can’t answer that, then you don’t really have a driving reason for your guest to come to your restaurant.
Having an unfocused brand is a common denominator among failing restaurants. If you don’t carve out a niche and identify a specific demographic, you’re a lot like a sailboat in the middle of the ocean: lost.
The world is very efficient at getting rid of things that are obsolete. The dial-up modem, the Sony Walkman, the Ford Pinto, and the Howard Johnson restaurant chain are all examples of things that have gone to the pages of history. Let’s add to that the large 7-panel mega menu. It had its time. It’s time to put it to rest. There will be some that will cry at its demise. Then there will be some who will be dancing in the street. In the end, all that really matters is what the customer is looking for and it’s not within big menus anymore.