Tips for Turning Your Restaurant Menu Into a Sales Tool

You've found the ideal property, hired and trained the perfect staff, and have a chef on hand who has created some absolutely divine dishes. You're ready to open. The last step is putting it all down on paper. Seems easy enough, but not so fast. Menu design and formatting is a much more crucial element in opening a restaurant than many realize.

A restaurant menu is essentially a document that communicates your entire restaurant concept to your guest. Additionally, given the right treatment, it can act as a sales tool helping to guide guests' ordering decisions as well as alleviate some pressure on your service staff.

Below are three helpful tips to keep in mind when designing your own restaurant's menu.

1. Choose Your Words Carefully

A restaurant menu should always be well organized and descriptive enough for restaurant diners to easily navigate the list. Yet many restaurant owners fail to consider the very words used when describing each dish. Linguist Dan Jurafsky, in a recently published study entitled The Language of Food, argues that the very language utilized by restaurants on menus can communicate much more about their concept, quality level and price point than previously realized. 

Perhaps the largest element Jurafsky identified in menu language trends was the presence of filler words, or words such as 'real,' 'delicious,' 'crisp,' 'fresh,' 'ripe' and 'authentic,' that have no real necessity on the menu. Lower price point restaurants such as quick serve and fast casual operations had a higher tendency to include these filler words when describing their dishes than the more upscale concepts. Why? Jurafsky argues that the assumption of quality and "realness" is already present in upscale concepts, but diners are not always convinced at lower price point options. 

Thus including these filler words on a menu does more to convince diners that your dishes are not be as "delicious" and "real" as you claim than if you simply left them off altogether. "Just the mention of ripeness brings up the possibility that there might be some people that might not think it's ripe," explains Jurafsky. 

Instead of claiming your bacon is "real" and "crispy," perhaps speak to the provenance of the ranch or the species of pig used. Diners today are overwhelmingly more concerned with origin and treatment (organic/free range/humane) than empty promises of quality.

2. Be All Inclusive

According to research by Menutrinfo, there are more people asking for dishes that cater to specialty diets than ever before. These specialty diets can range from diets by choice, such as paleo, vegetarian or vegan diets, to allergy or medical based diets that often involve the avoidance of the eight major allergens: eggs, shellfish, peanuts, soy, wheat, fish, milk and tree nuts.

When designing your restaurant menu, including notations that communicate which dishes are accessible to these 'specialty diners' help make the menu inclusive to a wider group of customers. By including even a handful of dishes that would satisfy these diners, you have just made your restaurant accessible to families or large groups consisting of a diner with dietary restrictions that would otherwise not have been able to dine at your establishment.

Your restaurant doesn't currently feature any dishes that would appease these specialty diets? Fear not. As Menutrinfo founder Betsy Craig explains "any good chef can create allergy free meals with what they have in the kitchen, they just need the motivation." And with Menutrinfo estimating there are currently over 15 million Americans living with food allergies, what better motivator than the potential expansion of your customer base.

3. Keep it Simple

There's no need to attempt to write the next great American novel when describing your restaurant's dishes. A simple and concise sentence that speaks to the dish's preparation is always acceptable. But leave enough room for your servers to be able to fill in the rest. By keeping your descriptions short and to the point, it frees up space to allow the diner's eye to peruse the menu without it feeling crowded or too busy, perhaps even leading to them ordering another dish. And by relying on your servers to verbally deliver each dish's description, it allows for diners to receive a more personal touch at each table. 

You should also apply the principle of simplicity to the number of menu items your restaurant features at a given time. Customers should never have to feel like it is a chore to read your menu. As Jurafsky explains, "All that reading of words on menus does tend to slow down dinner ordering."

Additionally, to borrow a concept of diner psychology from Jurafsky, the idea of less is more applies to restaurant menus as well. As he explained in The Language of Food, "inexpensive restaurants just have far more dishes," sometimes averaging twice as many options. The higher priced restaurants, however, feature smaller more concise menus, reducing the element of diner choice. By offering an enormous selection of dishes, you thus risk associating your restaurant with the extensive menus of many of the lower price point, casual dining style restaurants. 

A handful of intriguing appetizers and entrees are more than enough to satisfy your guests. To keep your menu fresh with a smaller, more limited selection, you can always add new dishes throughout the year while cycling out others. By limiting your menu items, it will not only help with maintaining service time, it will help keep food cost down as well.