The Three Things Successful Menus Need to Be

by Donald Burns4 Min Read

Your menu is a lot of things. It’s a marketing tool. It’s a calling card. It’s your brand. Too often menus are not given the respect they rightfully deserve. And that’s sad.

Function and flow should be a major consideration whenever you are designing a menu. 

It’s sad because your menu is more powerful than most realize. It’s the one thing you can almost be sure will be viewed when someone walks in your restaurant. Your menu sets the tone and expectations for the guest experience. In collaboration with your ambience and your team, your menu is pretty much the star and the rest are just supporting players.

Now we can go into a whole dissertation on the elements of menu design and engineering. In the restaurant industry, you’ll see a wide range of menus from the ultra-hip and modern, down to the classic, and even the plain. Menus come in all sizes from standard, to legal, to tabloid. You can do a single page or multiple panels. Lots of options and variables when it comes to the discussion of menu design.

As you can see, there are a wide variety of options you have to consider when designing your menu. There are three “Golden rules” all successful menus must follow if you want to have the impact on your business that a great menu can deliver.

Approachable

You would think that this one would be a no-brainer. Then again, common sense is not very common. Your menu has to be approachable from the viewpoint of the guest. Yes, there are those few avant-garde culinary wizards pushing the boundaries and envelope of what a menu can be. They are very elite and only comprise a very, very, very small percentage of restaurants in the market. David Chang can get away with some of the stuff he puts on his menu because he’s David Chang. If you are not David Chang (owner of Momofuku) or Grant Achatz (owner of Alinea), then you’re going to have to come back down to earth.

It’s great to have signature dishes on your menu. In fact, you need them. They become your brand differential in a crowded market. The problem comes when your entire menu becomes a list of ingredients that the majority of your guests would have to Google to understand.

Here’s something you need to understand, if a guest is unsure about an item then the chances of them ordering it drop dramatically. Now granted, you’ll have those adventurous diners who ask questions of the service team and will be eager to explore exotic ingredients on your menu. Most restaurants cannot survive marketing to a small niche in the market. Unless, of course, you are a celebrity chef and can command $100 or more for one of your tasting menus.

Containable

Many chefs and restaurant owners can design elaborate menus that entice hungry patrons to come in and dine. The problem comes in the execution of such elaborate menus. Up until the guest takes that first bite of your food you have essentially only talked a good game.

Menus need to be designed so the culinary team can flawlessly execute every item on the dish.

Menus need to be designed so the culinary team can flawlessly execute every item on the dish. Lack of consistency does not build loyal guests. Large menus with complex plating details such as three different infused oils, carrot threads and micro greens as a garnish tend to slow kitchens down. Not paying attention to the number of items on the menu coming off each station is another recipe for disaster. If your menu has 10 sauté items and you only have a four burner stove expect items to drag the station. Nothing hurts a menu more than poor timing in the kitchen. All the food needs to hit the window as close to the same time as possible. Nothing quite says we don’t have our act together like serving half of the table and dragging the rest of the food another 15 minutes.

Function and flow should be a major consideration whenever you are designing a menu. Oh, and if you think your cooks will speak up and tell you that you overloaded their station with items, they won’t. No one wants to risk losing their job. So what they’ll do instead is create shortcuts like sandbagging. Unless you’re back in the kitchen or have trained your team to uphold your standards, watch out because some will try to shortcut the system.

Profitable

Lest we forget the restaurant exists to make a profit. In order for your menu to turn a profit you need to know every-plate-on-the menu cost. There’s no way around it. Many restaurant owners approach costing as a “should” when in fact it is a must.

With modern technology there is no excuse why you can’t monitor and manage your food cost. In today’s market there are companies striving to be in all-in-one management system for restaurant operators. HotSchedules has a complete restaurant management platform that includes programs to help you manage inventory, control cost, schedule, recruit, train, keep online forms, a manager’s logbook, and even analyze insights from your POS system.

Toast POS is another industry disruptor when it comes to the power to analyze data from your point-of-sale system with seamless systems built right into their software. Gift cards, loyalty programs, online ordering, customer relations management software… All built into one system. No need for a separate loyalty program and a separate online ordering terminal. These are advances you didn’t see 10 years ago. So what’s your excuse now as to why you don’t know your food cost?

Profitable menus don’t just happen. They are carefully crafted, analyzed and implemented with ruthless precision and accountability. Once your menu is up and running it doesn’t stop there. You need to constantly look at the data and make smart decisions about what items to add or take off. Your menu is your number one marketing and profitability tool. Treat it with some respect.

Donald Burns

@donaldburns | LinkedIn | Website

Donald Burns, The Restaurant Coach™ is a leading authority, author, speaker and international coach on how restaurant owners and operators go from just good to becoming exceptional. He advises in the areas of menu development, design & engineering, restaurant operations, culinary consulting, culture, peak performance and team dynamics.

Related Articles