10 Steps to a Total Menu Makeover

By Donald Burns, Foodable Industry Expert

Take a look at your menu. Go ahead. Take a look as if you were casting your eyes upon it for the first time. It is making a statement that supports your brand identity or a cry for help? Being self-critical for some is just downright difficult. It's so easy to point out the flaws in other restaurant menus and hard to see the flaws in our own. 

Your menu is the one thing that every guest will look at. It's so important, yet why do so many not give it the full measure of respect it deserves? Let's fix that. Now, in order to give your menu a real chance at change, you will need to leave your ego at the door. Don't worry, you can pick it up later — but you must be objective on what is best for the brand. 

Get some blank paper and pencils. We are going to construct a visual mind map that will set you up for success. If you are ready, then here are the 10 steps for a total menu makeover: 

1. Think seasonally. 

Just like we dress seasonally, we tend to eat seasonally, as well. Geography will play a role in this, especially if you live in a warm climate. However, even if you live in Miami, you crave different foods in the summer than you do in other seasons.

The No. 1 reason a lot of menu makeovers fail is because the menu planning process was not given the proper amount of time. Yes, you can roll out a new menu in a few days, but you would not be doing justice to the entire process. So look ahead to the next season for your menu planning.

Okay, now without overthinking (the major issue for all restaurant projects), start to write ideas down for the season ahead. Let's say you are getting ready for summer. Brainstorm some ingredients of summer. Notice that I mentioned just the ingredients, not dishes yet. Let's really explore the season first. 

Here is a trick: Get a copy of either “Culinary Artistry” or “The Flavor Bible” by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page. They have a great way to list out ingredients by season. It’s inspiration to get the brainstorming going. Write down any seasonal ingredients that are going to be at their peak. So, if we were looking at summer, our list might include:

  • Arugula
  • Blackberries
  • Salmon

Now, we want to explore the flavors that represent your brand, as well. Everyone will tell you to think “outside the box,” however, when it comes to your brand, you’ll want to stay within the box. Fusion cuisine quickly becomes confusion when you start bouncing all around the globe with flavor profiles on your menu. If you’re confused about who you are, how do you think your guest feels?

Perhaps we are a Pacific Rim concept in Southern California. Our flavor profiles could include:

  • Thai
  • Chinese
  • Japanese
  • Korean
  • Pacific Northwest
  • Southern California

Ingredients could include:

  • Ginger
  • Garlic
  • Yuzu
  • Gochujang
  • Coffee

Now, we start formulating new menu ideas. Maybe from our list we come up with:

Coffee and Blackberry Lacquered Salmon + Gochujang Brussel Sprouts + Baby Arugula + Yuzu Vinaigrette

We also should include any popular selling features that we offered over the last few months. Features are great way to get feedback on future menu items. Here’s one tip about features: Make sure you have them worked out and thought-out well in advance. Too many features are made up quickly without a lot of thought into them. You need to approach features as “up-and-coming players” that could be added to your menu repertoire. Remember that half-ass efforts produce half-ass results.

This step gives you a list of items that could be part of your menu, but you still need to do a review of your current menu. You need to know where you’ve been in order to design a better menu, which leads us to step two.

2. Use POS data to determine menu items.

If you have a modern point-of-sales system, then you have access to what is known as a product mix report. This report is critical in menu development. Before we get too far, you will need to make sure that you have your current menu costed out completely. Yes, if you want to build a better menu and make more profits, then you must know your cost of each menu item. No way around this. This is a non-negotiable. If you don’t know your cost, you do not know your business.

Now too many people just rely on popularity to decide which menu items should stay and go. You actually want to take into consideration the cost and the popularity. This is what is known as menu stratification, and there are four categories:

Stars

These are your items which are highly profitable and highly popular, hence the name. You always keep the stars.

Plow horse

These items are low profitability, however, highly popular. Your guests love them. The problem is they don’t really make a lot of money for you. These menu items could easily become stars if they generated a little more profit. The best way to do that is to rework the dish by maybe changing out the protein or the portion size to reduce the cost to make this dish.

Puzzles

These items are highly profitable yet low in popularity. These items could become stars if you sold more of them. A lot of times that can be fixed by changing the wording or the positioning on the menu.

Dogs

These items are low profitability and low popularity. They do not sell and you lose money on them. Dogs always come off the menu — no matter what. The problem with a lot of restaurants is that sometimes the dogs are a favorite of the chef or owner. Remember that menus need to be designed for profitability and popularity for the guest and not the ego of the chef or owner.

There are some really cool spreadsheets on the market that can help you with stratification of your menu items. The team over at Toast POS has an easy one you can use, along with instructions on how to use it.

3. Update costing.

When it comes to menu design, it is easy to get caught up in the creative and fun stuff. It’s exciting to brainstorm new menu ideas and explore new flavor profiles, but we must not forget that businesses exist to make a profit. So along with the fun comes those things that sometimes operators dread — updating your food cost.

Most modern POS systems have an inventory and cost control feature built right into their software. There is also quite a few food cost software out on the market that you can use.  SimpleOrder, FusionPrep, CostGuard, Ctuit, SnergySuite, ChefSheet, and quite a few others, if you ask Google. If you say you’re not computer savvy with internet software, you can still use an Excel spreadsheet. You don’t like Excel spreadsheets? Then, you still have paper and pen. So, you really have no excuse as to why you cannot properly calculate and maintain your food cost.

4. Don’t overlook station flow.

Here is an exercise that many overlook when designing a menu, especially if they are not the chef. You need to understand how many items are going to be prepared from each station in your kitchen. You might have a great list of menu items that you want to add to your new menu, but you need to see how much they’re going to impact each station.

An easy way to do this is basically look at every item on your menu and designate which station it will come off of. Total them up then take another look at the balance of the menu. Restaurants experience longer ticket times when stations get overloaded. If you have a menu with 46 total items and 24 of them come from the grill (and your grill is only 24 inches wide). you might have a problem. What about if you have 12 sautéed items on your menu and only four available burners in your kitchen? That could cause some problems and a backup on ticket times.

You need to seriously consider the workflow of the kitchen when plotting out the new menu. If you asked the team in the kitchen if they can handle it, of course they’re going to say yes, because no one wants to lose their job. The problem will come on Friday night dinner service when the tickets are backed up and food is coming out slower than expected. Save yourself some heartache by understanding and planning for the flow of the kitchen.

5. Evaluate your menu’s layout.

Don’t just take the easy route. You need to consider all the options when it comes to the layout of your menu. Are you going to be one page or multiple pages? Letter size, legal size, or tabloid? It’s kind of like the dilemma of Goldilocks and the Three Bears…too big, too small, or just right.

Here are some things to keep in mind before you get too far into menu size and how many pages:

  • A. People scan menus. They don’t really read them. Please do not think you have to explain your brand story on the menu. Most people don’t take the time to read it, anyway, so it just clutters up your overall menu flow.
  • B. Paradox of choice. Too many items or too many pages can be a little too much. People do like a choice. However, when you have too many options, they have a difficult time making a decision and they get frustrated. You can see this when you see a guest flipping back and forth in the menu and finally shake their head and just say, “You know, I’ll just have a burger.” You just lost a possible higher sale.

Which is best for your brand? Get some samples and take them into your dining room and see how each one works in your space. If you have smaller tables, then having a large, tabloid-sized menu (11X17") might not be a good idea. While the look is important, so is the functionality of the layout. Is it easy for the guest to use?

6. Choose the right colors.

Another thing to think about is the color of the paper used and the color of the fonts. Most menus are designed in the comfort of a well-lit office. So many times paper color is selected by what looks good. You will need to take a sample out into the dining room and see what your menu looks like under “real world” conditions. That means the corner table around 8pm. Can you read the menu clearly? Don’t force your guests to pulling out their smartphones in order to read your menu.

Font color is important, too, and another option that many select by what looks “cool.” Some colors just do not work well on certain background. It doesn’t matter if it’s your favorite color. If you make it hard for the guest to read, it’s a bad choice.

7. Don’t choose hard-to-read fonts.

When it comes to font selection, the same rules for color can be applied here. Make it easy for the guest to read and not what you think is necessarily cool. The best option is to stay close to what are known as serif fonts. Now, there are literally thousands of fonts out there, from Oldstyle, Modern, Slab Serif, Sans Serif, Script, Grunge, and Decorative. For menus, stay away from script and decorative fonts. They just are hard to read at times, especially if the font size is small.

Serif fonts have little lines (called serifs — yes, very clever) at the end of each letter that basically assist the eye in leading it across the page. Using a serif font helps the guest read the menu more effectively. Remember, we want to make reading the menu easy.

  • Serif fonts (like Times New Roman) usually have moderate transitions in their strokes. This makes them have less contrast and increases their legibility. The serifs visually lead the eye from letter to letter, word to word, and nothing gets distracting.
  • Sans serif fonts (like Helvetica) don’t have serifs, hence the “sans.” With very few exceptions, they are mono-weight, which means that every part of a letter is the same thickness. This style of font if good for item titles. Stay with Serif Fonts for item descriptions.

8. Take note of these menu psychology 101 key terms.

Now to really take this to the next level, you’ll want to know a few key menu psychology terms to ramp up your menu game.

Recency Effect

This takes into account that most humans use short-term memory for a variety of daily tasks. It’s easier to recall the events of yesterday over the events the same day last year (unless it has a deep emotional trigger). The same for reading menus. Items at the top and bottom of columns tend to stick into the head more. So, how can we use that? Simple. Place your high profit items at the top and the bottom of columns.

Semantic Salience

See this symbol: $. Yeah, the dollar sign. A study at Cornell University has shown that diners spend more money you take away that pesky little symbol. It seems that people have an association of pain when it comes to paying.

Priming, also known as "The Decoy Effect"

This concept again primes the pain pump. You place an item similar yet higher in price right above another item. The higher-priced item basically primes the guest into looking at the item below as more of a bargain or deal. Example: You have a buffalo ribeye on the menu for $47. Below that you have your regular ribeye priced at $35. Be prepared to sell a lot of regular ribeyes.

9. Double check for effective pricing. 

Pricing is never an easy consideration. You need to take into account three key factors when pricing out your menu: what the item cost to make, competition, and what your market will bear. Too many restaurants based their pricing solely on what the competition is selling it for. How do you know they’re making money at the price point they have it?

A tale of two hamburgers. You can take a gourmet hamburger and sell it in Albuquerque New Mexico for $10. You can take that exact same hamburger up to Santa Fe (which is only 45 minutes away) and sell that burger for $14. Why? Because in Santa Fe the market can handle a $14 hamburger. Make sure to do a competitive price analysis of your market to make sure you are not leaving money on the table.

10. Ensure quality printing. 

Please, for the love of everything sacred in the restaurant industry, have your menus printed on quality paper using a quality printer. It’s easy to understand that sometimes budgets are tight, but your menu is your No. 1 marketing tool and your calling card. Make sure it represents your brand 100 percent. It is so sad seeing a menu not given the proper respect it deserves. What does the menu say when it is printed on cheap paper from a home office printer?

If you are going to print your own menus, at least invest in a quality printer and quality paper. You can get great-looking results using thicker paper known as card stock. A lot of energy and time goes into designing a menu that represents your brand. Don’t fall short of the finish line with poor quality printing.

Menu design can be an incredibly collaborative, creative, and fun project if you approach it as such. On the other hand, it can be frustrating, exhausting, and sometimes a real pain. It truly depends on your mindset and outlook. Treat your menu with respect — it will go a long way to build your brand and increase your sales.