IF YOUR MENU ISN'T ONE OF THE BEST SALES TOOLS YOU HAVE, YOU'RE DOING YOURSELF WRONG. HERE'S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW TO MAKE YOUR MENU SING.
If designing a winning menu were as simple as distilling choices down to those with the best profit profile, then any restaurant operator armed with food cost and sales figures would likely have no worries. In
reality, the challenge of ratcheting up profitability involves not just hard numbers, but emotions and gut feelings as well.
Deborah House, c.e.o. of the Chicago-based Adare Group, counsels stepping back at the start and asking some basic questions. Who are your customers? Who would you like to bring into your restaurant? What’s the competition like? What kind of image are you trying to project? Those answers will steer any changes to the menu.
"You want something that honestly portrays what your restaurant is all about," says Chuck Polonsky, president and executive creative director for Associates Design, Northbrook, Ill. "You don’t want it to look cheap, but you also don’t want it to look like you’re an exclusive restaurant if you’re selling $5 hamburgers."
Another key consideration: What do you do well—or want to be known for? After considering that, Hops Grillhouse & Brewery recently wound up reinventing its menu so dishes would revolve around three recurring themes: freshness, grilling and distinctive sauces. Nearly every item on the menu is new or something the 65-unit chain improved by adding higher-quality ingredients.
"It’s a dynamic menu that will encourage our guests to visit Hops more often," says Sue Morgan, Hops’ vice president of marketing.
Should It Stay or Should It Go?
Numbers lie at the heart of any menu engineering effort, which is designed to winnow out less-profitable, slower movers in favor of popular and profitable choices. Operators need to appreciate the nuances of this process.
For instance, it can be relatively simple to push popular but less-profitable items into the more-profitable category by repositioning or repackaging them. For example, a burger might have a higher food cost, but when bundled with a beverage, the total sales and average profit on that check rise. "That’s how value meals were born," House says.
Many operators dwell too much on individual item profitability and forget the ultimate goal of improving the bottom line. "Don’t get over-concerned with food costs," advises Pat Morris, an associate with A La Carte Food Service Consulting Group. "It’s a control factor, but it shouldn’t be a deciding factor. Often, higher check averages more than offset higher food cost percentages."
Correct pricing is also crucial to a hard-working menu, something Unique Restaurant Corp. C.E.O. Matt Prentice learned the hard way. After getting rave reviews shortly after opening, the chefs at Unique’s Northern Lakes Seafood Co. "started feeling bulletproof and handsome, and they started moving the prices up," he recalls. "I had a business friend call and say ‘you have the best fish restaurant in town, but I won’t eat there again. I felt violated.’"
Inflated prices had wiped out any goodwill with customes the reviews had generated.
"Chefs tend to take liberties without seeing the big picture," Prentice observes. "Pricing is important, and people know value."
Focus on the Stars
The next step, after crunching the numbers and choosing the headliners and supporting cast, is devising a composition that reflects the appropriate emphasis.
Bill Paul, founder of the Menu Advantage, looks at menus as a form of real estate. "Every item on the menu is a tenant that is renting space," he explains. So part of our job is to allocate the right space to the right tenant." Psychological and sociological studies suggest that certain spots on a menu-upper right and left and center bottom on a trifold design, for example-draw more attention and would thus be the high-rent districts, the perfect spot for popular and profitable dishes. It’s also where the most effort should go into both images and text.
Too often, graphics specialists like to give menus a balanced look, but Paul says that’s a mistake. "Most menus...have a shotgun pattern of creativity throughout the menu," he observes.
Paul—who has helped Unique Restaurant Corp., Levy Restaurants, Marie Callender’s and others tune up their menus—also says the average guest can’t recall more than five to seven items after skimming a menu, so your chance to make the right sale is fleeting. "That means it’s absolutely critical to prioritize what you want and need to sell," he says.
"You want to make sure guests can correctly identify products that you want to sell that are in your best interests and the guests’," Paul continues. Proper layout and emphasis will drive sales of the items you want, and guests will be happy. Done correctly, focusing on the right dishes can drive anywhere from 25 cents to $125 per meal to the bottom line.
Menus can be workhorses in more subtle ways. They offer another chance, aside from the server, to upsell the customer. The already-pricey ($27-$44) steaks at No. VI Chop House list several optional complimentary sauces, but other toppings sell for a premium, such as Alaskan King Crab with Bearnaise ($9.95) or seared foie gras ($9.95). "If you don’t put it on the menu, people aren’t going to think about it, and they certainly won’t ask about it," Prentice says.
Similarly, if you’re happy to make substitutions for finicky eaters, saying so on the menu will win them over, House suggests. "You’re really trying to figure out what problem your guest is trying to solve by coming to your restaurant," she says.
The new menu at Hops solves the challenge of varied appetites and budgets. By presenting a variety of tastes and prices within each menu category, Hops’ menu is designed to give customers choices. "By providing this variety, we think the customer can use us in a variety of ways," Morgan says.
Guests may like reading flowery descriptions, but that language won’t necessarily steer them toward the "right" dishes. "People don’t want to be verbally romanced; they want good information," Prentice says. And menus that are too complex graphically can be a liability. "If you’re going to get too creative, it will take longer for people to order and slow down the service," House says.
How often should a menu get revamped? It depends on the restaurant and the customer base. "If you’re operating in an office building, you have to make the menu look fresh because people are going to get sick of eating the same damn thing every day," Morris says. "In an airport, you could probably keep the same things for a long time and no one would care because it’s a different crowd every day."
In the end, the most thoughtful menu engineering won’t have an impact on its own. "It sets you up for success, but it doesn’t ensure it," Morris counsels. A beautiful, well-designed menu won’t yield much unless a restaurant uses marketing and other methods to build traffic.