Menu Design: Why It’s Important and How to Do It Right

A good restaurant menu design is key to any restaurant’s marketing plan. When you design a menu it should express your eatery’s personality, focuses your overall operations, promotes profitability, establishes your budget, and keeps your brand fresh in your customer’s mind.

What should my goals be when I design a menu?

Your menu is your primary means of representation: It says exactly who you are and what you hope to convey personality-wise. It also should create enough of an impression so that it stays with your client long after the waiter or waitress walks off with it. In addition, it must convey your restaurant’s brand in a manner that makes diners excited to be there, want to come back and to recommend it to family and friends. design a menu

What steps should I take before I design a menu?

As with most creative endeavors, proper results can’t be achieved without sufficient research. In the case of designing the right menu, that means collecting data from various sources. Examine your own numbers first, such as your restaurant’s prospective financial and marketing numbers and its sales mix. Then look at your competitors: examine their Web sites, menus and marketing efforts and try to see where they went right and how you could compete successfully with those traits. Also, look at vendors and see how they handle similar challenges, and read industry sources (trade publications, published research) to evaluate trends and successes.

After that, consider your location and how it relates to the immediate neighborhood around you. Eighty percent of a typical restaurant’s business usually comes from the residents living within a 10-minute drive of that location. Knowing this, ask yourself the following:

  • What can my restaurant menu offer that others in the area do not?
  • What menu items do we have in common?
  • How does our pricing match up?
  • Does my menu offer more variety than theirs?

Determining these factors will help guide you when you design a menu for your restaurant.

How should I design a menu?

There are no rights or wrongs in when you design a menu. What works with some establishments fails at others. However, as mentioned before, your menu should be an expression of your restaurant’s personality. In designing it, think about how it will best represent your image and objectives. Are you classy and sophisticated? Fun-loving and wild? A small, plain text menu can be used to enhance a restaurant’s impression of elegance or simplicity. A thick, flashy, image-intensive menu can emphasize a location’s festive side. Once you determine your restaurant’s personality, you can easily begin crafting the look of your menu to match that.

How should I arrange items on the menu? Should I use merchandizing techniques to help?

When you design a menu it should mimic the dining experience. Arrange items sequentially, with appetizers, salads and soups first, then entrees, then desserts. Place star items on pages that contain more visual flair than others, and set markers or photographs around featured items to further draw attention.

Merchandizing techniques will further help this agenda when you design a menu by allowing you to easily spotlight specialty and signature items, introduce newer selections and invoke an appropriate sense of personality. In turn, the techniques also make these items easier for your clients to find and recognize.

We Help with Turnarounds and Transformations

Nearly every successful restaurant turnaround had a new menu strategy as a cornerstone of its brand renaissance.

What are some tips I can use for my restaurant menu design?

Place your best selling items, or those you want to have the biggest draw, on the Prime Sweet Spots of the menu. These areas refer to the spots where the average client brings his or her eyes to first — and thus receive one’s first attention. Also, arrange your items in columns when you design a menu, depending on your restaurant’s image: One column inflects a sense of sophistication and elegance; two columns bring forth a sense of playfulness, etc.

Highlight spotlight or signature items in a way that draws attention to them: boxing selections off within your menu works well at this, as does adding colors, photographs, labels and logos.

Naming items specifically or creatively (ex. Rojo Chicken Salad) and using active descriptions of the ingredients in the dishes, makes the food sound more enticing and exotic for the client — and may induce future visits.

What are some common mistakes in restaurant menu design?

If your menu creates problems for your clients, they will become apprehensive and less likely to return. Common mistakes include when you design a menu are: Menu print that is too small to read easily; menus that are too big to handle easily; menus that lack English translations for non-English words or phrases; menus that look antiquated in presentation; menus without daily or weekly special insets; entrees that don’t look like their photos; generic clip art; and misalignment of brand and menu.

How should I price my menu?

Diners are savvy, and often they’ll know how your items match up value-wise against your competition. In light of this, keep your more everyday items (dishes you can find anywhere, really) approximately $1 more or less than your competition. Many customers do not perceive such increments to be significant, especially with dishes above $5, so there is some leeway there. Likewise, remember when you design a menu that items unique to your restaurant can be a little higher but also should not exceed the other items excessively. Doing so will make the latter more enticing to diners, especially those who visit your establishment regularly.

Also, to get a better feel for the sense of value you are promoting when you design a menu, take a picture of each item on the menu in a way that mimics the actual presentation on the table. After doing so, ask yourself: Do the items look like they are worth the price you are charging? Could a change in presentation justify an increase in price? Is there consistency with the overall look or does there seem to be a wide range or inconsistency in the price versus its presentation? You’ll be amazed at what you discover when you look at the entire menu collectively through the customer’s eyes.

Menu Strategy Must Be Holistic

One of the surest and quickest means to improving performance for a restaurant chain is through effective menu engineering strategies. It’s about more than tactical design, merchandising techniques, promotional tactics, and pricing strategies though.

How about menu profitability?

To keep your menu fresh, relevant and profitable, you need to know how each item is performing and how it stacks up against your competition. Conduct an analysis of your menu every six to twelve months. During this evaluation, look at profitability analysis and competitive menu analysis and determine what works best and what isn’t working at all. Then make the proper adjustments so that your changes reflect your research.

Comparing your menu with that of your competitors also helps. It not only opens more doors towards pricing your menu, it offers you a solid foundation on how to measure your profits. Performing a cross analysis helps uncover strengths and weaknesses in your pricing plan, specifically in terms of the way your items are priced and presented. By doing this, you determine which items are most popular, which are most profitable, which need extra emphasis, and which need to removed or replaced.

About Aaron Allen & Associates

Aaron Allen & Associates works alongside senior executives of the world’s leading foodservice and hospitality companies to help them solve their most complex challenges and achieve their most ambitious aims. We have helped evaluate and engineer menus for some of the world’s largest restaurant brands, as well as helped restaurant companies around the world drive revenues, increase profits, and enhance the guest experience through improved marketing, messaging, and menu engineering. 

Our clients span six continents and 100+ countries, collectively posting more than $300b in revenue. Across 2,000+ engagements, we’ve worked in nearly every geography, category, cuisine, segment, operating model, ownership type, and phase of the business life cycle.