5 Tips on Engineering the Right Menu for Your Restaurant

The restaurant menu is the singular most important element of any operation. Yet, it is often relegated to a half-hearted (or misguided) effort at best, and a comical jab at juggling food cost at worst. Where is the logic? Food is the product of any restaurant. So why give such little thought to the device that describes, sells, and advertises your product?

I was just working with a friend getting ready to open his restaurant. Six months of renovating an existing property, he worked nothing short of a miracle being victorious at navigating the license and permits minefield. Amazing at creating a dazzling dining room and even designing an alluring logo for the restaurant signage at the entry, the forthcoming soft opening is but a few days away. I asked about the menu. His response? “Well, we’ll print something in house or send something to the printer.”

1. Stick to Your Original Hair Color

Restaurants fail when they either A. Don’t stick to their fundamental mission, or (gasp!) B. Don’t even have a mission with which to begin. An effective restaurant menu is the customer-facing version of that mission. Ever have a boss that comes in with red-tinged hair after sitting behind the big desk sporting a salt-and-pepper coiffed ‘do for the last few years? Confidence is questioned and uncertainty ensues. It’s confusing, often silly, and much less than reassuring. The same goes for the menu. Stick to your follicle roots.

Remember when McDonald’s got serious about pizza? Neither does anyone else. McDonald’s does a solid job with their mission of speedy production and value-conscious food for busy people. Agree with their style or not, they do a remarkable job when their menu keeps in lockstep with their mission. When Ronald changes his hair color, though, the outcome is less than fruitful. And scary.

2. To Change the World, It Starts With One Step

When you own or manage a restaurant, it is your world. We know about the hours, commitment, and investment. Make it a great world, live a great story. Know what you want to accomplish with your food. Chef-driven operations often have the best food offerings because the personnel responsible for the execution are crafting the menu tool. It is their world. Now, get that spirit in front of the customer. If the menu is a haphazard construct of untested, overtly trendy nonsense slapped together from Pinterest posts and has no harmonic resonance of the restaurant’s mission, what outcome could you possibly expect?

Is your place an upscale casual, food-forward, craft beer spot catering to the afterwork crowd? Or, perhaps, a family-friendly, brightly lit spot targeting middle-class diners with kids in tow? Do the research. Dine out at similar operations, perhaps in far-off locales. Call on personal experiences that smacked of good trials. Read. Cull the web. And build the menu. Inject the flavors that should work and the dishes that are most appealing to the demographic on the restaurant’s radar. The menu should be a direct reflection of who you are. There really is no gray area. This is the time to use more skill and less ambition.

3. Don’t Waste Time Trying to Be Something You’re Not

Keep your product offerings in line with what your equipment is designed to handle, what your staff can expertly produce, and what makes sense. That doesn’t mean you can’t keep things fresh. This isn’t a game of extremes. Confused customers are lost customers. Remember Starbuck’s ill-fated leap at becoming a bakery? That lasted about 8 minutes. If the kitchen is smaller, equipped with a two-burner range, and a grill, use those tools to their maximum benefit. No fryer? Why try to menu a bunch of fried items by rigging something out of nothing? Problem solvers are great. Creating solutions from minimal resources is noble. Just don’t build on a foundation destined to fail.

Say this out loud: I will not and cannot be everything to everybody. Say it again. Print it over the entrance to the kitchen. And over the entrance to the office — that desolate place where decisions can be made that impact the entire operation; that place that operates in a bubble without an inkling of what is happening facing the grill.

Yes, menus exist that run the gamut. Cheescake Factory is the default go-to when I explain to operators that a 12-page menu is not profitable, sustainable or, honestly, appealing. You aren’t Cheesecake Factory. There is a lot of psychology that tells us that “choice paralysis” is a real thing and will negatively impact customers’ satisfaction. Successful operators learn from the Chick-fil-A model; less focus on the sheer number of options and more focus on quality output. Without alienating customers and intoxicating their choice nerve center, keep a singular approach driven by mission.


4. When Did Restaurant Menus Get So Scientific?

Engineering, product placement, and pricing schema are all relevant considerations when building a great menu. All of the technical componentry of a menu doesn’t mean the menu is fancy or even complex. Quite the contrary, actually. The menu should sell your brand, your image, the reason you are in the biz.

Fonts and colors, as well as the layout, design and content placement, all have formidable roles in a compelling menu. Menu engineering further elevates the psychological effect of menu construction to its most effective plateau for your operation. A menu without engineering misses many beats and leaves money on the table.

5. Fresh, Stale, or Trendy?

Same menu since 2006? Probably time to realize that you are bleeding money. Product costs rise, labor costs climb, flavors vacillate, seasons morph. And your customers are bored. The menu should be given much the same consideration as the paint on the walls and the condition of the carpeting, if not more so. While seasonal menu changes are optimal for some operations, changing a menu four times a year may be just too daunting for others.

Menu printing, staff retraining, recipe troubleshooting, and marketing may cost too much for quarterly menu reinventions. But twice a year is not unreasonable to reap the benefits of offering a well-crafted tool that is the lifeblood of the operation, driving customer interest, as well as keeping the ebb and flow of expenses in check through a properly costed menu.

Take Your Shot

You have to double-tap the love for keeping the menu relevant and effective. Relevant. Effective. Two very distinct elements of a good menu. Is this some place that you want to eat? Is there also food for thought? Keep 80 percent of the menu solid and approachable, while the other 20 percent should be thought-provoking and stimulating for the adventurous diner, keeping in mind that not every dining experience has to be a journey into the unknown. Invest well-spent time and resources in developing a great menu. The voice of the restaurant should be a big a booming “Hurrah!” or a very humbling, deafening silence.