8 Ideas for Effective Menu Design

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Whether you offer a menu that is static, dynamic or seasonal, you know that it is imperative to have a menu that is well designed. An effective menu mixes a well-chosen layout, succinctly-written food descriptions and correctly priced items. Good design not only keeps you ahead of the competition, but should be about the experience, not the products. A poorly designed menu can hurt your restaurant in a plethora of ways, one of which is causing slip-ups at Point-of-Sale (POS), which leads to slower table turns and diminished customer satisfaction.

Here are some suggestions to create a well-thought-out menu for your restaurant:

  1. Menu Engineering – Ok, ok … I know this sounds like a horrible course that you avoided when you were in school; however, it’s actually a cool concept where the goal is to increase the profitability per guest. Essentially, you divide up your menu items into different categories: stars, plowhorses, puzzles and dogs. Stars are high profit, high popularity dishes. Your menu should highlight stars. Plow-horses are low profit, high popularity items that bring customers through the door. You don’t have to highlight these because you want to encourage spending on higher profit-margin items. Puzzles are high profit, low popularity dishes. They are called puzzles because you are unsure of why these are not selling well. These are good candidates to be used as “daily specials” or to be highlighted in other ways (such as putting in a box on the menu) to drive more people to these high margin items. If they continue to sell poorly, then consider swapping them for other high margin items. Dogs are low profit, low popularity. They cost a lot to create and are not popular enough to offset the expense. You should consider replacing these items with higher margin options.
  2. List order matters. According to experts, the first few spots in a category are generally the most read. The last item in a category on your menu also gets a lot of attention. Everything else pretty much gets ignored. Place your stars, plowhorses, puzzles and dogs accordingly to maximize profitability.
  3. Length of menu – Ever tried to make a decision about food that you were going to order, but couldn’t because there were so many choices on the menu? Ugh. There is actually a science to this. According to experts, a one-panel menu allows you to make decisions about what customers want to order more quickly. Two panel menus are actually the recommended configuration. Again, they provide less choices, but it gives you room to offer enough dishes to give customers the feeling of a true dining experience. Three panel menus are fine to use if you need the space, but are not recommended. A many panel menu (such as those offered at many diners) makes it hard for customers to choose their meals and influence their decisions. Bottom line … shorter is better, especially when you’re trying to influence purchasing decisions.
  4. Messy, messy, messy – Don’t be messy with the design of your menu, be smart. The best menus are the simplest ones. Use clean fonts and bold headers. Explain the main components of a dish and highlight your best-selling and highest margin items. A quality photograph is fine, but don’t crowd the menu with these. It makes the menu look cheap. And don’t try to highlight everything … it’s overwhelming. By following these guidelines, you’ll experience quicker table turns and, ultimately, happier customers.
  5. Modifiers – You can have a simple designed menu with short listings of items, but how can you empower customers to order exactly what they want?  One word … modifiers. First, let’s define modifiers. It’s just what it sounds like … they are predefined preparation instructions that need to be communicated to the kitchen or bar but are not listed on your menu (ex: steak cooked medium well). You should be able to use your POS system to modify menu items based on preferences.
  6. Pricing – Pricing has everything to do with psychology. For example, would you rather pay $20 for an entree or $19.95? Although the latter number is only $.05 less, mentally it places the price in the teen range (which makes it a less expensive item) rather than the $20s. Also, consider listing prices on your menu without a dollar sign. It places priority on the food and not the price. Make sure to determine how much each item costs you to prepare and then build in enough margin so that you can operate profitably. Many POS systems offer the ability to track food costs that will help with this process.
  7. Specialty items – Gluten free, sugar free, dairy free, vegan, low calorie and kid-friendly options …. these days, the list of food trends goes on and on. You should consider updating your menu based on customers’ eating habits. Over time, this will allow you to adapt to your customers and increase your customer base. To keep your menu simple, use symbols to distinguish food preference instead of a longer, written description.
  8. Go Digital – Digital menu boards are a great way of advertising your dishes without having the cost of printing menus. Obviously this doesn’t work for all types of establishments, but it is a great option for quick service restaurants, cafes, and more. More importantly, you can dynamically drive customers to a menu item that you are trying to sell that day. Remember, digital menu boards also allow you to integrate with your POS system so that you can make any changes in real-time.

Well-designed menus can play a large role in making your restaurant more profitable. Invest in these strategies and you will see the impact on your bottom line!


About the Author

Restaurant Manager

As a leader in restaurant and hospitality point of sale solutions since 1987, Restaurant Manager develops POS software for the foodservice industry with a focus on the unique business needs of independent restaurants and regional chains.