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Josh Phillips
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June 18, 2018

How to write a menu that works for your business

How do you get your restaurant’s customers to spend more money? All you need to do is follow these six steps to write a menu that tantalises your customer and sells more food.

 

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Your menu isn’t just a way of telling customers what’s for dinner.


It’s so much more than that.


A menu is a form of advertising. It’s how you communicate with your customers, how you tell them what you’re all about.


And it’s how you sell to them.


Aside from standing outside your restaurant with a sandwich board and a tray of free samples, your menu is pretty much the best way of selling to consumers, so it’s vital that you make sure your menu works for you.

 

 


 


Restaurant Resource Group call a restaurant’s menu a “silent salesperson.” A good menu will help you sell your most profitable items, get your customers ordering more, and upsell. And you can hack your menu to make it do just this.


According to Gregg Rapp, a menu engineer extraordinaire, a redesigned menu can see restaurants increase their profits by around 15%.


This blog will take you through the ins and outs of how to write a menu that works for you and your business.

Know what you want

Sure, your customers choose from your menu. But have you ever thought what you want from your menu?


Yes, you choose what goes on your menu. And you’ve got a good idea of what sells well — what your most popular items are, what you make good money on, whether you’ve got any loss-leaders, and so on.


But do you know how your menu impacts on choices customers make?


Good menus aren’t just thrown together. The best menus are finely-tuned documents that work hard to persuade their readers to part with their hard-earned cash. They use clever design and typography, evocative descriptions, and some faintly underhand psychological skulduggery to draw their readers in.


These precision-engineered menus all have one thing in common, though: their designers know what they want their menus to do.


Before you start to write a menu, you need to know what you’re going to put on it, and what you’re going to get out of it. This means you need to know several things:


How popular an item is.

There’s no point in putting something on a menu if nobody’s going to order it, especially if you need to buy in special supplies to make it. You’re just throwing good money after bad. Equally, there’s no point in redesigning your menu if you’re going to bury your most popular items.


How much profit you’re making on an item

Sure, you’re in the restaurant business for the sheer joy of it, for the love of food and of customers. But you also need to turn a profit, don’t you? And your menu can help you to do just that. If you know how much money you’re making when you sell a certain item, you can work out what to prioritise on your menu.


Knowing what you want out of your menu is crucial, as it determines what you’ll put in. You need data on what sells and how much money you’re making on each and every menu item, from those pre-dinner olives to the post-dessert coffee. A good point of sale system should generate this data automatically as your restaurant chugs along. Make sure you’re using it.

First impressions matter

109 seconds.


That’s how long a customer will spend reading your menu, according to a Gallup poll.

 

 

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That means you’ve got less than two minutes to get your point across, to get customers’ interest piqued.


Not long, is it?


Luckily, there’s a lot you can do in those 109 seconds, if you’ve got your priorities straight.


This is where knowing what you want from your menu is crucial: you don’t want your guests to spend those nearly-two-minutes ploughing through the appetisers and pre-dinner nibbles.


You need your silent salesperson firing on all cylinders.


And there’s a hack for that.


When customers read a menu — or anything, really — their eyes are going to be drawn to certain places: what Gregg Rapp calls “prime real estate.”


In most menus, these are the first items in each section, but not always. The table below is from Gregg Rapp’s website, and goes through where the “prime real estate” is in different menu designs:



Menu Configuration

Area of Most Attention

Area of Least Attention

One-panel

Top of the page/panel

Just below the bottom of the page (if your one-panel menu cover displays menu items on both sides of the cover, all entrees should appear on the front side, as those on the back won’t receive as much attention.)

Two-panel

Top of the right-side panel

Just above the bottom on the left-side panel

Three-panel

Top of the third panel

Just above the bottom on the third page

Multi-page

Top of each page

Just above the bottom of each page


There’s a pretty clear pattern here: people’s eyes tend to be drawn to the top of each page, and the top of each section.


Maximise the potential of this prime real estate by putting the items you want to sell here — your high-margin items and the dishes your restaurant is known for.


That way, you can get people looking at what you want them to, and ordering the dishes you want to sell, all in 109 short seconds.

Choices, choices, choices

In a 2004 book, an American psychologist named Barry Schwartz wrote a book with a single bold claim — that people really don’t like making decisions.


In The Paradox of Choice, he says that, although freedom of choice is important, too much choice can be a bad thing. Having too much choice can create anxiety, leaving customers unhappy.


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You’ve probably experienced something similar yourself — think about going into a supermarket and looking at a set of shelves piled high with different varieties of toothpaste, or cereal, or whatever. It’s not a fun experience, is it?


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Restaurant customers feel something similar when they look at a lengthy menu.


What’s the take-home from this?


When writing your menu, it’s best to limit the number of options available.


Going back to Gregg Rapp, he recommends that when you write a menu, you aim for five items for each section, and never put more than seven items in a single section.


A long menu doesn’t do you any favours. It’s not just that the customers are likely to be put off by it:



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A long menu costs. That’s a fact.


For every item you offer on your menu, you need to carry ingredients to make it. And for menu items that don’t sell in quantity, that can prove expensive, particularly if you’re using premium ingredients, such as out-of-season veg and seafood.

 

 

 


So, as tempting as those fresh mussels might seem when they’re in season, and you can get them from nearby, they may prove a much less attractive proposition when you’ve got to pay for shellfish flown in from the other side of the world.


Instead, it’s better to think about what’s fresh and what’s local, and design your menu based around the produce that’s available to you.


When thinking about your menu, you need to think about it not just in terms of what you’d like to cook, or what you believe your customers would like to eat. Because you’ve got limited space, you need to justify the business case for each item you put there.


So, a shorter menu keeps the customers satisfied and helps your bottom line. That’s a win-win.

Catcher in the Eye

So, you’re taking advantage of where people’s eyes are naturally drawn. But there’s also a lot you can do to actively draw people’s attention when you write a menu.


Draw customers’ eyes and pique their interest by using “eye magnets” to attract readers to certain parts of your menu.


These can be anything that grabs people’s attention:


Canva discuss how different menus use eye magnets on their blog, talking about what makes each menu really stand out:


They’ve got examples that use shaded boxes and borders to highlight items and sections, menus that make clever use of bold typography to draw people’s attention, and playful graphics that attract people’s eyes.


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Eye magnets are a great way to highlight those items you really want to push — whether they’re big ticket items like steaks or seafood, new additions to your menu or seasonal specials, or cheap and cheerful lunch specials that you make high margins on.


A good menu leaves as little as possible to chance: instead of letting customers pick and choose, it keeps you in the driver’s seat.

Use evocative language

What’s the difference between fried chicken and “tea brined, buttermilk soaked, twice battered fried chicken”?


About five quid.


That description is taken from Mother Clucker, a London-based food truck that sells fancy fried chicken.


Pretty much every high street in every city in the country has a down-at-heel fried chicken joint, but Mother Clucker cottoned on to the gourmet fried chicken trend early. Their description makes it clear that this isn’t the same as all the other chicken shops, and helps them to justify setting a premium price tag on something that is traditionally seen as junk food.


It’s a strategy that bears fruit. A study by the Association for Consumer Research found that evocative language in menus led to a 27% increase in sales.


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That’s not to be taken lightly.

 

Over the course of a six-week field experiment, the ACR found that evocative language encouraged customers to order, and improved customers’ attitudes towards their food once it had arrived.


Attractive-sounding menu names and descriptions are, according to the ACR’s research, “the most important cue” for guests to determine whether an item sounds attractive or not.


The study found that three types of label swung it for customers:


  1. Geographic — labels like “Cajun” or “Italian,”
  2. Nostalgic — labels like “homestyle” or “Grandma’s,” and
  3. Sensory — labels like “tender” or “satin.”

But the study also noted that you can have too much of a good thing: when writing menu descriptions, it’s better to use a few, really well-chosen adjectives than a word salad.


And, of course, if your food doesn’t match the description, then you’ll leave customers feeling like they’ve been mis-sold. Nightmare.

The price isn’t always right

Here’s another study for you:


In 2009, the Center for Hospitality Research at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration published research about whether the way restaurants displayed prices impacted on sales.



Their findings were surprising:


Even in the same restaurant, with the same food coming out of the same kitchen, tables that received menus with prices that didn’t have currency signs or decimals — so “10” instead of “£10.00” — consistently spent more, both as a table, and per cover.


Although “£10.00,” “10,” and “ten” all mean the same thing, the study argued, people read and process them differently. Putting the currency symbol on the menu, a £ or a € or a $ sign, makes people start to think in terms of money — a process known as “priming.”


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And, it didn’t make a difference whether or not you knock pennies off the price. Items that were priced at £10 sold just as much as items priced at £9.99 or £9.95. So, save those pennies.


Where you put prices matters just as much as how you write them, as well.


If you display prices in a column on the other side of the page to your menu descriptions, all you’re doing is drawing attention to them.


Instead, Gregg Rapp recommends “burying” your prices by listing them along with your menu descriptions. That way, customers are more focused on the food they’re ordering than on the prices, and their eyes can’t just flick over to the prices.


Another great hack that menu-writers employ is using expensive items to act as a “decoy,” which makes cheaper dishes look more palatable by comparison.


Sure, you might sell that £70.00 (or, even 70) lobster dish once in a blue moon, but that doesn’t matter:


Next to it, that £25 monkfish dish looks positively frugal.

 

 

 


So, even though your space is limited, it’s important to consider what non-sellers you can afford to keep on your menu.

What do I do now?

But how do you put all this into action?


You don’t need to be a graphic designer to take advantage.


You don’t even need a copy of Photoshop.

Just create an account with Canva, or a similar service. You can use these services to make a slick, professional menu in a few clicks.


There’s hundreds of templates to choose from, and it’s super-easy to customise them.


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These hacks might be pretty simple, but they can have a huge effect on your bottom line. But before redesigning your menu, be sure to get your priorities straight, and work out what you want.