14 Ways to Create, Implement, and Maintain a Great Restaurant Menu
If you own a restaurant, chances are good that you know how to run a business, understand food, and are marketing towards a specific and targeted niche. However, if watching the Food Network has taught me anything (and I think it has!), chances are also good that you have no idea what you’re doing. For every visionary launching a chic tapas eatery, there is an equally ambitious schmo that has sunk every dime into a failing diner. For every Gordan Ramsey, there is a John Doe with a dream, a double mortgage, and decent family recipe for tamales.
Americans–even more than in apple pie, baseball, and freedom–believe in a meritocracy. Our national motto is “work hard and you will succeed.” But despite what you might think, the difference between a successful restaurant and a doomed one is often razor-thin. Surviving longer than five years in this industry takes blood, sweat, and tears, but you need more than just guts to make it. Hard work isn’t enough. Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps isn’t enough. You need a prime location. You need a good accountant. You need reliable chefs and wait staff.
And you need a truly great menu.
The following are 14 ways you can create and implement an engaging menu:
Table of Contents
- 1) Understand Your Market
- 2) Pay Attention to Food Costing
- 3) Make Use of Local Ingredients
- 4) Be Mindful of the Seasons
- 5) Keep It Small
- 6) Use a Tablet-Based POS System
- 7) Leverage POS Reporting Tools
- 8) Train Your Waitstaff Well
- 9) Use the Right Materials
- 10) Get Online
- 11) Be Descriptive
- 12) Design It Well
- 13) Embrace Change
- 14) Have fun!
1) Understand Your Market
This is Foodservice 101, folks. Know your customers. Understand the neighborhood and the local culture. Unless you are Vivian Howard, your fine dining restaurant isn’t going to survive in a rural setting. The denizens of Farmville, USA (population 750) are probably not craving nouveau cuisine. (Okay, that one kid who’s dreaming of bright lights and a big city might be interested in a seared scallop with parsnip foam, but it’s likely that very few others will be, um, amused by your amuse bouches.) Similarly, your down-home diner is probably not going to fly in Malibu Beach, unless you serve your chicken-fried steak with alfalfa shakes.
I realize these generalizations are condescending at best and downright insulting at worst. There are plenty of foodies in small towns and plenty of meat eaters on the Left Coast. But in general, you need to make sure you are serving what people in your area want to eat. If your menu offends the sensibilities of most of your potential customers, you’re not going to survive.
2) Pay Attention to Food Costing
This is the number one area where new restaurant owners fall down. I get it—you’re busy doing payroll, training waitstaff, paying the bills. You have a million things to do. But food costing is not an area where you can cut corners and hope for the best. You will go out of business, and quick, unless you’ve crunched the numbers correctly. The prices on your menu are often more important than the menu items themselves.
3) Make Use of Local Ingredients
There’s been a real trend recently toward locally-sourced ingredients. On every street corner, there is a mustachioed hipster blathering on about their favorite new farm-to-table co-op. But using local produce and meat isn’t a gimmick or a Portlandia fever-dream.
Serving food from your area has many tangible benefits. For one, it’s often cheaper. (Think about it: you’re removing the cost of shipping, storing, and preserving ingredients from your overhead.) It also ensures that you’re serving fresher food. Think people can’t tell the difference between fresh and frozen scallops? Corn straight out of the husk and corn straight out of the can? Think again. Finally, creating a menu based on local food is good for the community. If you’re supporting the farmers, growers, bakeries, packers, and distributors in your area, everyone wins. Struggling communities don’t eat out much. Thriving communities do.
4) Be Mindful of the Seasons
It’s a small world, after all. And one of the consequences of living in a global and connected environment is that we now have year-round access to food that once was only available in certain seasons. Generally, this is a good thing. It’s nice to have the option to serve strawberry shortcake in December, or roasted Brussels sprouts in July. But just because you can eat tomatoes in the winter doesn’t mean you should. Out-of-season produce tends to be mealy, pithy, or sour. Gross, in other words. And even if it’s not watery or tasteless, it’s simply old. It can take days or weeks to ship food from Costa Rica, or Mexico, or the Philippines. By the time it gets to you, it is geriatric.
Don’t serve ancient or icky fruits and vegetables. Be respectful to your customers. Be respectful to your food. Let Mother Nature do her thing, and stick with produce that is in season when crafting your menu.
5) Keep It Small
People like to have options in life, but give them too many options, and you create anxiety. (I’m looking directly at you, Cheesecake Factory.)
There is a definite sweet spot to menu length. Offer limited choices, and your diners—especially your American diners—will feel a sense of resentment. As a nation, we don’t like to be shoehorned. Don’t you dare tell us we have to have either the steak or the chicken. We will develop an instant and unquenchable appetite for fish or pasta.
Offer too many options, however, and you will eventually need to serve your appetizers with a side of Xanax. Deciding between 15 or 20 tempting menu items can be fun; deciding between 200 equally interesting dishes will result in mass panic attacks.
6) Use a Tablet-Based POS System
If you’re using a SaaS POS (and you really should be), chances are it’s tablet-based. Imagine if each of your waiters and waitresses had an iPad on them at all times, something that allowed them to consult the full menu, answer questions, add or subtract certain modifiers (onions, for example), and accurately transfer orders to the kitchen, right from the diner’s table.
With restaurant POS systems like Revel, Shopkeep, and Lightspeed, this is not only possible, but easy. (Check out our full reviews of the most popular restaurant POS systems to see how else tablet-based software can boost your business).
7) Leverage POS Reporting Tools
As good as tableside tablets can be for your menu, POS reports may be even more valuable. If you’re not already designing your menu based off of analytics from your POS system, you should start right away. Create a time machine and start yesterday, if you can manage it.
The reporting tools built-in to a modern restaurant POS can do anything from tracking popular menu items to illuminating waste of raw ingredients. In short, you can get real-time, actionable information that should alert you to which items are selling well, where you’re losing money, and where you can make subtle changes to your menu.
8) Train Your Waitstaff Well
You may have crafted the greatest menu possible, but if your waitstaff doesn’t understand it—doesn’t represent it well—your efforts will have been for nothing. As a customer, nothing is more frustrating than having your question about a menu item met with a blank look, or worse, a nervous “Um, I can go ask the chef…?” (This is where tablet-based POS systems really come in handy).
Before the business day starts, make sure that each and every one of your servers knows…
- Every detail about the regular menu
- Every detail about the specials
- How to correctly pronounce the name of every single dish, ingredient, and condiment
- What’s in each sauce, salsa, compote, etc.
- Information about potential allergens (tree nuts, peanuts, gluten, eggs, shellfish, etc.)
Also, this may go without saying, but make sure your waitstaff has actually tasted all the menu items. How are they supposed to do justice to your food if they’ve never eaten it?
9) Use the Right Materials
This is such a simple thing, and yet so many restaurants get it wrong. Menus come in all different forms: simple typewritten sheets of paper, elaborately printed card stock, laminated single pages, laminated/unlaminated booklets. But whether your menus are disposable, reusable, or created daily on chalkboards, it’s so important to get things right. If you use the wrong materials, you send the wrong message.
Your fine dining restaurant will lose a little of its ambiance if your menus are reminiscent of a Denny’s. Likewise, it may make more sense to use disposable menus at, say, a BBQ joint. (Unless you want to spend hours cleaning up sauce every night.)
Most importantly, few things are more off-putting to a diner than a sticky, stained, or water-damaged menu. And nothing, nothing is more off-putting than a plastic menu that smells of Lysol. Ew.
If you’re going to use a laminated menu, you better be willing to disinfect it well (with a cleanser that doesn’t make people want to throw up). And if you’re going to use paper or card stock, you better have enough in the budget to keep printing and reprinting it.
10) Get Online
These days, almost everyone has a smartphone. And like it or not, most people make use of their smartphones when deciding where to go for a bite. If you’re not online, oh-so findable on Google Maps and Yelp and UrbanSpoon and other lists of area restaurants, you might as well hang an out-of-business sign on your door right now.
But forget about just having a basic online presence for your restaurant. Your menu had better be internet-accessible as well.
Unless you’re serving something pretty unique–say, authentic Maori food or the cuisine of Cornwall–you will have competition in your area, and lots of it. I live in a very small rural community in Oregon; filbert trees outnumber the people three to one. But my microscopic town has six Mexican restaurants, two Thai joints, three Chinese eateries, a couple teriyaki places, two breakfast cafes, four coffee houses, two bar-and-grills, three pizza parlors…I could go on.
You’ve got to give people a compelling reason to pick your establishment over any number of others, and your menu is your best argument. Making that menu available online is paramount to your success. I cannot stress this point enough. Get your (frequently updated) menu online ASAP, or go ahead and get the bankruptcy paperwork ready now.
11) Be Descriptive
What you write and how you write it are important. You’ve got to choose your words carefully. To start, be as descriptive as you can; after all, when is a bacon cheeseburger just a bacon cheeseburger? Is the bun toasted? Let people know! Are you using aged cheddar? Shout if from the rooftops. Is your bacon slab-cut? Brag about it. Your customers will dine with their imaginations before they actually put anything in their mouths. Words can be powerful tempters.
However…don’t be fancy just to be fancy. Never say ‘aioli’ when ‘mayonnaise’ will do. And try not to use foreign words if there is a good English equivalent. Unless you’re genuinely targeting a foodie crowd, it’s best to call a spade a spade (or call an aubergine an eggplant, as the case may be.) Generally, people can see right through that kind of thing. And they don’t like it. The goal here is to titillate—to awaken the appetite—not to irritate or confuse.
12) Design It Well
We’ve talked about menu length; we’ve talked about menu materials. But we haven’t discussed menu design. Typeset. Font size. Color. These things may seem trivial but they are actually critical considerations.
Add a menu written in cramped, tiny letters to a dimly-lit dining area and the result is frustrated customers. People should not have to dig reading glasses out of their pockets/purses to view your menu. That’s the goal, at least. Oh, you’ll have a myopic diner or two that can’t even see their large-print crosswords without help, but if you do things right, most of your customers should be able to read your menu without assistance.
It can be tempting to pad a menu out—make it look longer than it is. But no one is fooled by unusually large font. This technique doesn’t work on 10th grade English compositions, and it doesn’t work on your entree list. Enough said on that score.
One more small thing: For the love of all that is good, proofread your menu before you print it. I don’t know for sure what the unforgivable sin is, but it is probably menu typos. One look at an item called ‘Bacon Cheesbulger’, and your clientele will head for the door. Or worse, they will laugh at you behind your back and leave a snarky Yelp review.
13) Embrace Change
No matter how good you think your menu is, there will always be room for improvement. What’s hip and interesting today may seem boring or played out tomorrow. (Remember sun-dried tomatoes?) Healthy restaurants embrace change and often make small, critical alterations to their menus. We talked about leveraging your POS system above—making use of reporting tools to see which menu items are selling well and which are costing more than they’re worth. Use that information when you’re contemplating change!
Are your shellfish and salmon entrees selling well? Consider adding similar items to your menu, making it more seafood-centric. Are people avoiding certain dishes? Just remove them from the menu, already.
Don’t be afraid to evolve. And likewise, don’t be afraid to try new things with your menu.
14) Have fun!
You got into the restaurant business (presumably) because you are passionate about food and want to share that passion with others. Allow that love and energy to come through in the items you serve. Restaurant goers can smell a joyless menu a mile away. (Wondering what a truly joyless menu smells like? Truffle oil.)
Embrace life and be creative when planning out your menu. Don’t offer food you wouldn’t want to eat. More importantly, don’t cook food that makes you sad. Diners are very good at tasting despair. Your menu should, above all, be an accurate reflection of your tastes, your philosophies, and your unique approach to food. A menu created with love will compel and engage your customers and keep them coming back for more.