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The Importance of Menu Design

October, 2009

By David V. Pavesic, Ph.D., FMP

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The dictionary definition of a menu is “a bill of fare” or “a list of food items a restaurant prepares and serves.” If this were the case, menus would all be simple printed lists of food and beverage items.

Instead, you must view you menu’s purpose in a broad and comprehensive role.

The goals of an effective menu can be summarized in five statements. A well designed menu should:

  • be an effective communication, marketing and cost control tool;
  • emphasize what the customer wants and what the restaurant prepares and serves best;
  • obtain the necessary check average needed to realize sales goals and bottom line return;
  • utilize staff and equipment in an efficient manner; and
  • lead to more accurate forecasting of the menu sales mix.

More Than Just A List Of Items Your Kitchen Prepares

The goals of a well-designed menu demonstrate the importance of the planning and research that needs to be done before a menu is finalized. Too much depends on the menu not to give it the kind of attention and budget that is often only given to significant capital investments.

Too much depends on the menu to leave it up to a printer or menu designer alone. Menu planning and design is a team decision and should include representatives from the owner, management, chef or kitchen manager, dining room manager and customer focus groups.

The importance of the menu content and design cannot be overstated. Much of the restaurant’s success will be determined by its menu. That is why the process of menu planning and design must be approached with the seriousness and diligence usually reserved for major financial business decisions.

The menu needs to be designed from the perspective of the clientele that the restaurant hopes to attract. Traditional favorites and creative selections need to be included. However, the menu design must also address the operational aspects of food cost, gross profit, average check, purchasing, preparation and kitchen efficiency.

With these aspects clearly defined, the actual design of the menu will help management achieve their menu goals. Whether you choose to print your own menus in-house (there are several very good menu software programs you can use), contract the services of a menu design consultant or simply work with your local printer, the profit, cost and sales goals must be reflected in your menu design.

No one can design a menu to accomplish these goals unless they are part of the menu planning and design process. This means talking to the graphic designers, printers, copywriters and menu consultants who can offer suggestions on selecting type fonts, ink color, paper texture, graphic designs and all the visual techniques they can apply to the menu.

Your Most Important  Internal Marketing Tool

The menu may be the most important internal advertising device used to sell the customer once they are inside your restaurant. It is the only piece of printed advertising that you are practically 100% sure will be read by the guest.

Once placed in the guest’s hand, it can directly influence not only what they will order, but ultimately how much they will spend. Using forecasted cover counts and average check targets, the menu design directly influences sales revenue. Management is constantly forecasting business volume and relating this knowledge to decisions on how much to buy, keep in inventory and prepare. The menu will have an impact on every one of these decisions.

More and more restaurant companies have come to realize and understand the importance of proper menu design on check averages. Several years ago, Houlihan’s revamped their menu with the specific goal of increasing check averages. The menu was designed to lead the customer from the specialty drinks on the cover to appetizers on the first page to the complete dinners inside.

Their old menu, by contrast, grouped all types of items next to one another on the same large fold-out page. This, it was felt, might have somewhat deflected dinner sales by making it easy for the customer to select only an appetizer.

Menus are being designed borrowing techniques from the retailing industry that make items stand out as if to say, “Buy me.” An article in The Wall Street Journal told of new menu designs highlighting the most profitable offerings that were also touted by waiters when asked to recommend a dish by the diner. Gallup conducted a survey that proved menu design had a “subtle effect” on what customers ordered. Using this knowledge, operators can boost sales of certain menu items.

Gallup also reported that a customer will spend an average of 109 seconds reading the menu. You have that long to get your message to them. The time limit needs to be addressed in your menu design and presentation. Some popular restaurant chains, TGI Friday’s for one, had a menu with more than 12 pages at one time. It has since been reduced to six pages.

A properly designed menu can direct the attention of the diner to specific items and increase the likelihood that those items will be ordered. These items should be the ones with the highest gross profit and lowest food costs that help achieve the average check needed to return the desired sales. The customers’ decision cannot be completely controlled; however, it can be directed and not left entirely to random chance selections.

David V. Pavesic, Ph.D., FMP, is Senior Professor in the School of Hospitality Administration in the Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University. He is an author and consultant to the industry in the area of operations, cost controls, menu design and menu analysis. He has been at Georgia State since 1986. Specific questions about menu design can be directed to Pavesic via e-mail at hrtdvp@langate.gsu.edu.

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