Menu Design

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The menu is a restaurant’s most important piece of marketing, and yet most redesign efforts don’t yield the results they could. Here is some guidance to help you get it right.

The fastest and surest way to improve sales, margins, the guest experience, and brand relevance is through effective menu strategy. A good restaurant menu design is key to any restaurant’s marketing plan. The menu 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.

Menus are one of the most complex aspects of one of the most complex businesses in the world. Those who’ve made it past a slump have often done so by launching a new menu that revisits their brand’s DNA and purpose, in a way that honors the past, but ensures it continues to be relevant today and in the future.

From where the prices appear to the color of the text, menu design has a powerful impact on what guests order. Leveraging the psychology of menu design can increase sales without having to change a single menu item.

Every great restaurant turnaround has started with a menu — yet new menu launches are often relegated to junior teams and mired in committee consensus.

The menu is the single most important piece of marketing collateral for any restaurant. A well-designed menu can consistently increase profits for any restaurant (whether an independent or national chain) by as much as $1,000 per month, per million dollars in annual revenue. Re-engineering and designing menus is vital to this process.

We help with quantitative analysis led by data scientists; incorporate findings into new product, pricing, presentation, and positioning recommendations. Working with your designers, we provide menu engineering insights (placement, descriptions, menu psychology, behavioral economics, industrial engineering principles, etc.) to showcase and improve menu merchandising, resulting in an immediate impact on same-store sales growth and meaningful margin improvements. After the menu engineering analysis takes place, these are some of the specific restaurant menu design ideas to consider:

  • Use colors to nudge guests to buy certain items: Based on the “meaning of colors” you can conjure up feelings and motivate behavior. For instance a limited use of red can call attention to high-margin items you want to move. Orange stimulates the appetite while brown communicates nature and earthiness. Color variations for example, a lighter background calls attention to high margin items and attracts the guests attention to them which can lead to a significant shift in menu preference scores.
  • Food Photography: For some concepts it makes sense to put high resolution photos of menu items in the actual design. More commonly you see this practice in fast-food through to lower price- point casual dining operations. Photos are one of the best merchandizing techniques you can incorporate into your menu but it must be done tastefully. There must be a “truth in advertising”.
  • Nested Pricing: We have all seen those Chinese restaurant menus with the dot-dot-dot leading from a generic menu item name on the left to the price on the right. This encourages customers to view your restaurant as a generic commodity and read from right to left instead of left to right. The goal is to get customers to scan the unique item names and well-written descriptions and make their choices based on what sounds/looks good; considering the price secondary not primary. Nested pricing is where the menu price comes after the description and is “nested” into the description using the same size font. The price should appear two spaces after the last sentence of the description (without a dollar sign).
  • Don’t Use Dollar Signs: When dollar/currency signs are used on the menu they become the most repeated item. The currency sign symbolizes money and therefore communicates the restaurant is just a business out to make a profit. Without a currency sign, guests still understand that any numerals beside a menu item are the price. This makes for a more subtle communication of the price of the item and keeps the guest focused on the experience itself more than the cost.
  • Menu Translation: If more than 15% of a prospective audience speaks another language you should strongly consider menus in that language.
  • Digital Menu Boards: Digital menu boards are particularly popular at QSR’s and fast-casual operations, but there are still uses for casual dining operations with printed menus. Digital menu boards can be used for promotional messaging (remember the old chalk boards when you walked in an Applebee’s?), training, and for zone merchandizing. Restaurant menu design must now take into consideration design techniques for printed output, for static digital output, and for animated digital output (there are considerations unique to each execution).
  • High Rent Areas: Think of your menu as a property development and yourself as the master developer. Where would you put the high-rent condos and where would you hide the necessary but unattractive utility stations? Every inch of your menu should be paying its fair share of rent. For those menu items worthy enough to get the high-rent areas on the menu, they need to be paying what the space is worth or surrender it to another menu item that can pay a higher rent. For example, the Golden Triangle of your menu should be where you put high-margin signature items.
  • Do not highlight too much at once: If everything is important nothing is important. look at how the big guys do it – whether on the QSR side like Starbucks or the high end of fine dining. If Starbucks has something special, every bit of in-store marketing is focused on that one item – from the bathroom posters to the window clings. And in the fine dining restaurant, if the chef has much to be proud of, he doesn’t have all the items listed off, he instead creates a very special chef’s tasting menu. The more you focus on one item, the more special you make it.
  • To Go Menu: People are more on the go today than ever before. It is important that your menu is able to go wherever your customers go. This could mean an email-friendly version of your menu, a menu that is visible on an iPhone or Android mobile browser, a menu that can be faxed (yes, some people still use it) and some would even go so far as to make sure that a customer can “Tweet” your menu.
  • Menu Pricing: Pricing is both an art and a science. The science part should be rooted in achieving target theoretical food costs and profit margins. The art part of it though is how to make the science part more appetizing and appealing. Price the menu in such a way that it cannot be easily compared or price shopped against the competition.
  • Brand Personality: The way a brand walks, talks, dresses, acts and behaves are all characteristics described in the Brand Personality. Is your brand playful, whimsical, and funny? Or is your brand serious, refined, cultured, and sophisticated? Once you have accurately articulated the brand in your overall brand platform and defined its personality, decisions, and ideation around items such as menu design and production have a comparison point to evaluate against.
  • Restaurant Brand Positioning: Once you have zeroed in on what makes you “different” as opposed to “better” the next job is to reinforce that message at every touchpoint possible. Applied more specifically to menu design, restaurant branding means communicating what makes your restaurant different in a way that also expresses the personality and promise of the restaurant. The approaches, therefore, are dramatically different and entirely unique to each and every individual restaurant brand.
  • Menu Engineering: One of the most important considerations with regard to menu design is to start from a foundation of knowledge and analysis gained through the complete Menu Engineering process. Design can help with aesthetics and even influence menu preference scores, but the real rubber-on-the-road for menu profitability is uncovered through Menu Engineering.
  • Zone Merchandizing: A successful menu strategy for increasing frequency and check average is zone merchandizing; using your own restaurant as a marketing channel to influence your existing customers’ perceptions and buying behavior. To do this, identify the various zones or marketing channels within your restaurant. This includes zones such as windows, bathrooms, greeter station, televisions within the restaurant, the actual tables (for instance you may use placemats or table tents at the table to communicate via this zone) and even the staff area zone. As you have a new promotion or something important to say, rollout the message via your zones. The most effective approach to this is to use each zone to reinforce a single message rather than clutter each zone up with competing messages.

Other Relevant Menu Insights

How to Design a Menu

Many considerations go into the design of a menu. Together with menu engineering, we listed some of the key aspects of restaurant menu design that will determine how successful the menu is: from color, photography, language, highlighted items, all should be in line with the brand personality and functioning to promote high ticket and high margin items.

How Many Menus Should You Produce?

It’s not an exact science, but there are some rules of thumb and planning considerations. One rule of thumb for printed menus which are reused (i.e. in vinyl slip covers, hard bound menu covers, etc) is to produce 1.5 times the number of seats you have (this is cutting it close and conservative). In addition to what you need for just normal operations, consider also printing extras over the 1.5x seat count allotment for replacing bad menus (defects, wear/tear, etc), stolen or missing menus (maybe you did something so nice it grows legs and becomes a souvenir), and then also consider providing full menus to local businesses, food writers/media, and local concierges.

In addition to those uses, also consider a less expensive version that is intended to be taken away such as putting in the bag with all to-go orders, in takeout bags, deliveries, and at local events, you may participate in. It is often much more economical to print/pro- duce too many than to have to go back for a second-run printing or order replacements at a higher price per unit.

How Do You Determine What to Charge Customers?

The objective of pricing, according to Menu Marketing and Management, “…serves the purpose of determining margin profitability, brand positioning, setting pricing objectives and achieving the intended gross profit margin.” You may also use your pricing to aid you in “discerning between a competitive strategy from a premium restaurant pricing strategy.”

There are four ways in which to consider how you are going to price your product:

  1. Food cost percentage: divide the cost by the net sale. Another approach is dividing the cost of the food by its weight – if you use ounces you will get the cost per ounce; multiplying this by 16, you will get the cost per pound.
  2. Average check method: Equals total sales / total number of guests served.
  3. Contribution margin: Equals the sale’s cost minus the variable cost.
  4. Straight mark-up pricing: The percentage difference between the selling price of a product (what the customer pays) and the cost of the product (what it was purchased for). This may be obtained in numbers or percentages. 

Another aspect which must be taken into consideration when determining pricing is employee meals. According to Menu Marketing and Management, there are three ways in which you may factor in the meals you provide to your staff:

  • Providing different food than what you serve your clients
  • Assign a fixed dollar amount per meal consumption
  • Accounting for meal food cost using the restaurant’s food

Lastly, when pricing your menu items the profits and your competition’s pricing are not the only factors you need to consider. Global events such as a volcano erupting in Guatemala may affect the price of the pineapples you serve on your “Hawaiian” pizza.

When calculating pricing always keep in mind that your customers expect “more bang for their buck” and, if they do not receive such from your restaurant they WILL go to your competition

What Are Common Menu Design Mistakes?

Making mistakes in menu design is pretty common when there are no experts involved. One of the most costly mistakes is the haphazard placement of profitable items that results from ineffective menu engineering (or not performing any menu engineering at all). Under-training staff to sell the menu, failing to properly analyze item sales, and missing mobile compatibility to promote the menu are also costly mistakes. We’ve written more on menu design mistakes here.

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, merchandizing techniques, promotional tactics and pricing strategies though. When done correctly, a holistic improvement is possible that also delivers benefits in terms of operational efficiency, brand and competitive differentiation, media interest that garners positive publicity, guest appeal that stimulates new trial and frequency, sustainable lifts to sales and profitability, and even reinvigorated morale and employee engagement at the unit level. We can help.

Glossary of Terms

  • Graphic Design: consists of creating visual ways to communicate a message. From layout to typography to pictures, several elements can be used to improve how a menu communicates to guests.
  • Menu Card: specialized foodservice menu employed in hotels and other accommodation services.
  • Menu Cover: is the case that covers the menu. For example, binders are hardcovers (usually plastic) with rings holding the pages inside.
  • Menu Layout: layouts are different ways menu items can be organized or arranged in the page. The menu layout should be logical, with the most profitable items emphasized and organized in a manner that makes the entire menu easy to scan and read. 
  • Online Menu: menus are usually available over the internet for customers to see before they arrive to the restaurant or to order for off-premise consumption. The menu design considerations for online menus are different than for physical menus, as other elements can be leveraged (interactive menus, LTOs based on geolocation and customer preferences, etc.).
  • Restaurant Menu Templates: menu templates can be a good starting point for some restaurant menu designs, and they are usually customizable to the brand and type of service. Templates are available from café menus to pizzerias to food trucks and can be visually appealing and a way to reduce costs significantly.
  • Upsell: a technique to induce customers to spend more, either buying higher price-point items or pointing them to add-ons or upgrades.

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, specializing in brand strategy, turnarounds, commercial due diligence and value enhancement for leading hospitality companies and private equity firms.

Our clients span six continents and 100+ countries, collectively posting more than $200b 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.