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How to optimize your menu, according to a menu engineer

How to Optimize Your Menu, According to a Menu Engineer

In many ways, the menu is the core of your restaurant’s operations: It determines what you serve, how much you profit from each item, what customers choose to eat, and whether they choose to attend your restaurant at all. “We create menus so guests can navigate them more easily and find new items that they want,” said CEO of Menu Engineers, Sean Willard. “We want them to find more than one item that they want so that they come back.”

Creating a menu isn’t just a creative exercise; menu design also requires you to consider the impact each dish will have on food costs and your marketing strategies. Whether you are designing your physical menu or an online version to publish on your restaurant website, keep in mind that customers are attracted to variety. However, too many options can become burdensome.

Keep your restaurant menu short and sweet.

Your customers don't want to pour over pages upon pages of menu items; you want them to enjoy the time with their friends and family. Plus, having too many options can be stressful. Instead of making them feel like the world is their oyster, having dozens of options makes customers feeling paralyzed, then dissatisfied with the choice they make. “When we overwhelm a guest, they push the menu away and order something they know you have,” said Willard. “When people default, that’s a loss because you’ve gone down to that commodity level.” He recommends restaurants limit the number of dishes they offer their clients so that the menu is short enough to fit on a single page. Several studies found that the average customer is most comfortable considering six choices in a section, though that number gets closer to 10 when they are looking at a fine dining menu.

A summer menu that features four starters, three entrees, and two desserts.

Cater to a variety of tastes and dietary restrictions.

Although limiting choice is important, you still want to offer enough options that most guests can find something that they want to eat. If you run a seafood restaurant, consider replacing a few fish dishes with meat- and vegetarian-based options. Barbecue joints may consider adding a plant-heavy dish to the mix for patrons looking for something on the lighter side. Still, you’ll want to ensure that your flavor profiles, naming conventions, and theme remain consistent so that the dishes look like they belong on the menu, even if they are a departure from the typical fare. To make your menu scannable for those who are looking for an item that meets their wants or needs, use icons that indicate whether an item is gluten-free, spicy, vegetarian, or vegan. In addition to those icons, the Wix menu builder also has one that you can use to flag specialty items.

A pasta menu tagged with icons that indicate whether the dishes are organic, spicy, grain-free, vegan, or vegetarian.

Analyze the data when paring down your menu.

A simplified menu will not only be easier for your customers to digest, but it will also streamline your operations and reduce food waste. Your sales data can reveal the popularity of your dishes (you can see this on Wix Analytics), which have the highest profit margins, which are imposing the most costs, and which are creating the most food waste. You should always take that information into account when determining your menu pricing and deciding what dishes to keep, cut, or alter.

A line graph that measures dishes for popularity, profitability, and foot cost.

Design your menu around readability.

Whether you are just starting a business or have a well-established restaurant, hospitality providers need to make sure that everyone who visits their establishment knows that they will be taken care of, including those with visual impairments. Therefore, it’s imperative that you design your menu so that no one will have to squint in order to read it. Keep the font for your dish names above a size 14 and make sure that the typeface is clear. You can scale down a bit when typing out your descriptions because people shouldn’t need to read them in order to know what they are ordering.

Although using colored backgrounds might create a visually interesting look, those design choices can make it difficult for people with visual impairments to read. Opt for high-contrast color schemes; black text against a white background is always going to be best. “If someone has difficulty reading something, they’re not going to order it,” said Willard.

A specials menu description being edited for color and font size.

Decide how often you want to re-optimize your menu.

The work doesn’t stop once the menu is complete! Building a menu is an ongoing process that works best when restaurateurs monitor food costs, continuously analyze the performance of each menu item, and pay attention to the feedback from online restaurant reviews. Releasing seasonal menus is a great way to ensure that your guests can find something new and exciting, even those who have been patronizing your establishment for years. Then you’ll have the chance to prune the items that have lost their allure and replace them with flashier concepts that will grab the attention of newcomers. If frequent menu changes aren’t in the cards, try to update your menu once a year, and maybe try using specialty holiday menus to test out new ideas before adding them to the main menu.

Although optimizing your menu can seem tedious, it’s work that’s worth doing. “When we move the needle on menu engineering, it can be a difference between 13 cents to $1.50,” said Willard. “We’ll fight for that penny in average menu profitability because when we annualize it, every penny in average menu profitability over the total guests we have in a year really starts to add up.” To put it in perspective, if you run a small restaurant that serves 30,000 guests each year, $1 in average profitability can add an extra $30,000 to your annual profit. At the end of the day, the most important thing is that you’ve curated a menu that you’re proud to show off every single day.

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