As you continue looking through your options, you’ll first take note of the one or two items on top, then skim through the middle, and hone in on the last one. Boxes, colors, and bold text will draw you in. That signature dish people can’t get enough of, the one that doesn’t make a lot of money? Chances are it’s buried. (Restaurant owners know you’ll find it no matter where it appears on the page.)
That menu might not make it easy to fixate on cost, either. Instead of listing prices in a straight column, they may be offset, making it more difficult to scan down the menu and compare. Sometimes taking the focus away from price is as simple as leaving out the dollar sign or making the price a font size smaller.
While most diners don’t spend more than a minute or two looking at the menu, restaurants spend weeks, and sometimes months, “menu engineering” and experimenting with different formatting, pricing, and wording. The goal: draw diners to items they want to highlight and help increase check sizes. If it’s done right, the design of the menu can have almost as much to do with what you wind up ordering as your appetite does.
“Menu is the single most important marketing tool that we have,” says KZ Marketing’s Karen Zaniker, a Severna Park, Md.-based consultant who’s worked with many national restaurant groups, including Friendly’s, Boston Market, and Lawry’s, as well as D.C.’s now-closed Zola, on menu branding and pricing. “It represents our food, our voice, our brand, the experience we’re going to have.” It also guides people through the buying process, and it’s the first impression they have on value and pricing.
One of the first steps in any menu design is determining which dishes will appeal to consumers, how they will fit the brand, and how profitable they’ll be. For Passion Food Hospitality chef and co-owner Jeff Tunks, a menu needs enough variety to appeal to a wide range of diners without overwhelming them. His magic number tends to be no more than 24 dishes. Restaurants want diners to be able to look at the menu and make their decisions fairly quickly to keep tables turning over. The menu can’t overwhelm the kitchen either: Tunks’ menus intentionally balance the workload for sauté, grill, and other stations, so no section is disproportionately slammed.
If an item is visually highlighted on a menu, that’s a good indication the restaurant wants you to order it. Chef’s specials, for example, often appear in boxes. You can feel the resulting high volume of orders in the kitchen, says Social Reform Kitchen & Bar chef Janis McLean. “The joke was, ‘Oh, I’m in the box today.’ You knew you were going to get beat up, because whatever was boxed was going to sell more,” she says.
Dan Simons, co-owner of Founding Farmers and founder of restaurant consulting firm Vucurevich Simons Advisory Group, starts his menu formatting by drawing a big “X” on the page. The corners and the center are the sweet spots. At Farmers Fishers Bakers, opening Nov. 9 in Washington Harbour, sushi has prime menu position in the upper left corner—with a box around it. Simons made a big investment in sushi, bringing in top talent and designating 10 seats for the sushi bar. “I need that program to work,” he says. “I was worried about putting it anywhere other than the premium spot.”
The bottom right corner of the menu is home to the “Meatless” section. Simons says Founding Farmers used to have a stand-alone vegan menu. Vegan guests loved it, but other diners weren’t interested. So they changed the heading from “vegan” to “meatless” and consolidated the dishes onto the main menu. Sales of those items jumped 500 percent.
At Fuego Cocina y Tequileria, Tunks assumed the lengua (beef tongue) taco wouldn’t be as popular as others, because it’s a more exotic cut of meat. So he put it at the top of the list of nine tacos, where diners might pick it before they got to more popular items like shrimp or fish. While tongue costs the restaurant less than other options, Tunks says his main motivation for pushing it is to sell it while it’s fresh and introduce diners to one of his favorite tacos.
When the restaurant opened in early October, the two-column menu featured tacos in the top right. “People were coming in, and all they were ordering were tacos,” Tunks says. He wanted to push more entrees to help raise the check averages and balance out the orders coming into the kitchen. A couple weeks ago, he moved the taco section to the bottom left of the menu, below the “Snacks for the Table” section, so people would think of them as a starter. Since then, entree sales increased, and taco sales have remained steady.
Zena Polin, co-owner of The Daily Dish in Silver Spring, made big changes to her menu a year and a half ago after going to a presentation on menu engineering hosted by Women Chefs & Restaurateurs. One tip she picked up: Don’t highlight burgers. “Anybody who wants to eat a burger will always find a burger on a menu,” Polin says. On her original menu, burgers and pizza were front and center, so she gave the chef’s special and fish dishes that space instead. “The day after I changed the menu, literally, we sold maybe one pizza as opposed to 10 at dinner, because people’s eyes were now drawn to the items we wanted to highlight,” she says. Between that and other menu adjustments, Polin saw check averages jump by $2.50, which adds a lot to a restaurant’s bottom line.
Menu design isn’t just about layout, though: Sometimes, just the wording of a dish’s description can make a sale. Naming the farm where food comes from or using phrases like “creamery butter” or “heirloom tomatoes” instead of just butter or tomatoes makes people more willing to spend more. Zaniker says the industry joke is “Free-range chicken? Add a dollar. Fresh fish? Add a dollar.” Polin used to list “cooked-to-order salmon” on The Daily Dish’s menu, but she has since changed the wording to “organic farm-raised Black Pearl salmon.” Immediately, sales increased.
Founding Farmers initially used language like “hand-crafted” and “house-made” all over its menu. But Simons says it became too much of a nuisance to read, so now the restaurants rely on servers or an overarching statement to communicate that everything is made from scratch. In fact, Simons banned his staff from using the word “artisan” on menus and business plans after seeing McDonald’s debut a clubhouse Angus burger on what it called “an artisan roll.”
Pricing can also be a mind game, says author William Poundstone, who investigates price psychology in his book Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value. “No one really has an inner sense of what things should cost. Instead, we basically deal in comparisons and contrasts,” Poundstone says. “Just as if you go into a dimly lit restaurant, your eyes will adjust to everything and you can see fine, we sort of react the same way to prices.”
Some restaurants “anchor” prices with a very expensive item that will make everything else look reasonable in comparison. If there’s a $50 steak on the menu, people are probably going to think, “Boy, this place is expensive,” Poundstone says. But if there’s a $100 burger next to it, they’re more likely to buy that $50 steak.
At DC Coast, all the entrees, except the market-price Chinese-style smoked lobster, are under $29. Tunks says a “3” in front is a psychological barrier for diners: “It becomes a special-occasion type thing.”
Another trick is bundling together items, whether in an expensive prix fixe tasting menu or a cheaper combo meal. Packaging items together makes it harder for people to make comparisons. “You sort of have this idea of what a hamburger should cost,” Poundstone says. “But if you get curly fries with it and a soda, you’re a little less sure how you can compare that to other items.” People might not want to spend $13 on two scallops, but if it’s part of a $75 prix fixe menu, they won’t realize they’re paying a high markup.
Shared entrees are also often profitable for restaurants. That’s because they tend to sell to people on dates, who are some of the least price-sensitive consumers. The menu may say “per person,” but diners often forget to double that. And if they’re trying to impress the person across the table, they’re less likely to make a fuss about it.
“Beware of anything that’s like a Valentine’s Day special,” Poundstone says. “They know you’re on a date, and people on a date are very reluctant to appear cheap.”
One thing that’s not cheap, though: menus. Farmers Fishers Bakers spent 11 months developing its, and Tunks says his restaurant group just spent a couple thousand dollars on new bar menus at DC Coast. “It’s your biggest tool,” he says.
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Graphic by Jandos Rothstein