How to Design a Menu: The Art and Science of Menu Engineering

So much of what happens in a restaurant is creative. All cooks like to think of themselves as artistes. It is, after all, called the culinary arts. But when it comes to techniques for how to engineering a menu, that’s where science kicks in. In fact, too much creativity on a menu can have negative consequences.

That isn’t to say that the process of how to engineer a menu shouldn’t be creative. Indeed, the right colors, typeface, even photos in some cases are key elements. But knowing which colors, what typeface and font size, and whether or not pictures should be incorporated are important considerations. They’re components in the science of menu engineering, and learning how to put the knowledge to work with your own menu can increase your profits significantly — without raising menu prices. There are more than 30 menu merchandizing techniques that have been proven to influence what guests buy.

That’s more than can be itemized here — and more than you need to employ to effectively reengineer your menu. The best menus utilize no more than two of the strategies on one page; no more than five for the entire menu. But one of the most important elements to understand before considering any of the others has to do with what can best be described as your menu’s real estate. And just as with conventional real estate, the three most important things in menu engineering are location, location, location.


Think of your menu as a property development. And just as with, say, a condominium development, some pieces of the property are more attractive than others. If you were a developer, you’d want to put your high-rent properties in those areas that are going to attract the best buyers. It’s the same with your menu, but instead of relying on water features to get the attention of well-heeled condo buyers, or relegating the lower rent condos to the lots next to the railroad tracks, you need to understand how your buyers, the restaurant guests, make their selections.

That’s where the science comes in, part behavioral and part sensorial. Studies have determined that people read a menu in a particular pattern. Take for instance the typical three-panel menu. When guests open the menu, their eyes immediately go to the middle of the middle panel. Then they move to the top right of the right-side panel. And from there, their eyes move across to the top of the left panel.

That’s sort of the Golden Triangle — the high rent district, if you will — of your menu. And that’s where you want to put your high-margin signature items. (How to determine what those items are is a topic for another discussion.) That’s perhaps an oversimplification of a rather complex study in human behavior. But it isn’t necessary to know how it works, only why it works, and then take advantage of it.

Other Considerations for Menu Engineering

But important as it is to know where to place which items within the real estate of your menu, there are many more considerations.

Some of these include:menu engineering

  • Item names – a simple cheese pizza becomes more alluring if named the Handmade Mozzarella Pizza.
  • Item descriptions – short descriptions are, as a rule, preferred. But if there is one item on the menu with a longer description than the others, your guests will take note. People are conditioned to notice something that’s different.
  • Negative space – Along the same line, by setting a signature item apart, with empty space around it, your guests’ attention will be drawn to it.
  • Nested pricing – Instead of right-justification of the prices, which encourages the guest to shop by price, place the item’s cost at the end of the description, in the same font size. That encourages the guest to choose an item by its description, not by how much it costs.
  • Don’t use dollar signs – Psychologically (more science!), dollar signs have been proven to actually create a negative physiological response of pain; much like a small pinch.

Hire a Professional Writer

And in the “neatness counts” category, be sure to hire a professional copywriter to write and proofread your menu. Misspelled words and poor grammar and punctuation get noticed, and they reflect negatively on you. But beyond mere style, concise and compelling copy sells. Your niece may have gotten an A on her English composition essay, but that does not necessarily mean she can write irresistible menu descriptions that will make your guests want to buy your product.

Also, engage the services of a professional layout engineer who can advise on font style and type size. Layout menu engineering is truly a combination of art and science. Flowery script and a tiny typeface can make a menu difficult to read. Hint: if your menu looks like a wedding invitation, you and your guests are headed for a break-up.

Brand Personality

But none of this will matter and no amount of menu engineering can help if you haven’t first developed your brand’s personality, its story, and its promise.  Too many business owners equate their brand with their name and their product, but true branding goes much deeper than that. Essentially, a brand’s personality is very much like the personality of a human.

If your brand were a person how would it walk, talk, dress, and behave?  Would it be whimsical or serious? What’s its favorite color? Would it wear a button-down shirt or cut-off jeans? People love storytelling, so after you determine your brand’s personality, consider its story. It could very well be your story, too.

But the focus of the story should be not what you sell but why you sell it, because, ultimately, that’s why people buy it. And the brand promise communicates your pledge to the customer. It may be in the integrity of your ingredients, your dedication to sourcing local products, or a higher level of quality. Once you’ve developed them, your brand’s personality, story, and promise will drive all aspects of your business, from the marketing you do, the sign you hang out front, and the color you paint your walls. And yes, even your approach to menu engineering.