Does Your Menu Put A Shift In?

I've been meaning to write an article about restaurant menus for a while. Menu engineering, or re-engineering, is something I've become more involved with over the last few years. It's nothing new, believed to have been developed by Michael L. Kasavana, Ph.D. and Donald J. Smith at the Michigan State University School of Hospitality Business back in 1982. One simple definition describes menu engineering as 'The primary goal of menu engineering is to encourage purchase of targeted items, presumably the most profitable items, and to discourage purchase of the least profitable items.' Its roots can be traced even further back, to 1970, from outside of the hospitality industry when the Boston Consulting Group performed some work to help businesses segment their products in a way that 'facilitates analysis and decision making'.

To 'increase profitability per guest' is another widely used definition. This, of course, helps achieve the overriding goal of every hospitality business - to make a profit. But it goes beyond the psychology of visual persuasion. It's an extension of your brand, you could even consider menus to be a virtual member of waiting staff. You see, there are two times when you would usually hold a menu in your hand; when you're sitting at a restaurant table, or at home considering ordering a takeaway.

The menu is placed in your hands by a team member, or popped through your door for your consideration. You are then left with this piece of marketing material (yes, it is a piece of marketing material as well as a menu) whose job it is to persuade you to buy the most profitable items ('increase profitability per guest') and spend more ('make a profit'). I'll go in to the key elements of menu engineering in my next post as it warrants an article in itself, but I suggested above that it goes beyond its main purpose of increasing profitability, by acting as an extension of your brand.

So there you are, sitting in the restaurant, or tasked with ordering tonight's takeaway, holding the least conversational member of the restaurant team in your hand. Depending on how attentive the waiting staff may be, the next interaction with them will usually be when they return to take your order. So what happens in the time between receiving the menu and ordering - does your menu put a shift in and help you to sell your dishes?

After receiving two menus, from relatively new local restaurants, through my door this week I felt compelled to post, possibly rant, about how some restaurants are still getting the basics wrong. These menus are not so much trying to put a shift in, they're not even turning up to work!

Have you even read it?

I'll focus on one of these menus specifically, which is littered with spelling mistakes. Maybe it's me, maybe I'm getting old, pernickety or whatever, but come on please proof read your menu before you go to print!!

I acknowledge that English may not be your first language. That's not the issue here. If I was designing a menu in Italian, do you know what? I'd ask an Italian to proof read it for me. Your printer or designer won't necessarily do this for you, it takes minutes and is the easiest thing to get right. For me, there's nothing that distracts me more from what's on the menu than poorly written content. If this basic attention to detail is overlooked on the menu, what else do they overlook?

In the example below I've picked out two spelling mistakes that just cheapen the whole image of this restaurant, which I haven't yet been to and only opened in our town just a few weeks ago (great first impression, right?):

'Vegiterian Crammy' Sauce, I presume, is a Vegetarian Creamy Sauce?

You can't beat those grilled 'King Prowns'!

I won't mention the name of the restaurant as I don't think that's fair, but it illustrates my point about getting the basics right. What's your perception of this restaurant now?

The issue here isn't necessarily the spelling mistakes, we're only human after all, but note the prices here as an indication of how they're positioning their brand. These aren't the cheapest 'Prowns' or 'Crammy Sauce' in town, so you'd presume they are going to be pretty good at this price. However, the dichotomy between the pricing of the dishes and the quality of the menu in my hand doesn't fill me with confidence, or suggest to me that this is a top-quality restaurant worthy of the prices.

This is more of a list of dishes than a menu, and, unfortunately for them, not a good piece of marketing either. There are ways to lay out your menu in an appealing and profitable way to steer your customers to your most profitable dishes, entice them with tantalizing descriptions and encourage them to spend more. I will go in to this in more detail in my next article. Both menus this week were so uninspiring they have inspired me to write this article (mmm?).

Speak to me Mr. Menu!

Part of menu engineering is organising your menu in the most visually appealing way to promote the most profitable dishes. Both of the menus in this article are in a simple list format, which is a little uninspiring but more importantly doesn't steer my attention to any specific dishes on the menu. Nothing jumps out or speaks to me on these menus.

In the example below you'll see the list format, and the two areas I've highlighted showing a circle around the heading 'Yogurt dishes served with rice' which doesn't tell me anything or get me excited about the dishes underneath. There's room for a description underneath the heading - tell me what's different about these dishes, how are they prepared, the origins of the dish or why yogurt dishes are more tender or flavoursome...speak to me Mr. Menu!

The other highlight is around the positioning of the Chef's Special Dishes that have been placed in a less than prominent position on the page. There's research and psychology behind where the best positions are to place your most profitable menu items. Chef's specials are usually more profitable, and the signature dishes that make you stand out from the competition. On this format menu, top & center are the better positions, the Chef's Specials on this menu are in one of the least effective places, so they don't feel so special.

On the branding side of things, price wise this restaurant appears to be a little more expensive than other similar restaurants in town, so it's positioned itself as more high-end. Apart from the black and gold to suggest a touch of luxury there's nothing else to make me want to pencil this one in for date night and splash the cash. The overall design doesn't present an image of luxury.

A wasted opportunity

The most frustrating thing for me here is the missed opportunity to sell your new restaurant to me. I have walked past it and it actually looks very nice inside, with a lovely open frontage leading on to pavement seating. A lovely place to sit to enjoy a meal and watch the world go by.

So why scrimp on the menu? you'll pay the same amount to print it whatever the design is, so just give it a bit more thought, maybe put it in the hands of a designer. The cost may be a little higher to start with, but once you have a template it can serve you for years. You've just spent thousands of pounds on creating a lovely restaurant, why save a few quid on a crappy menu!?

What's the difference anyway?

Aside from the general brand image and using your menu as a marketing tool to sell your dishes and encourage people to visit your restaurant, menu engineering research suggests that a well designed menu can increase profits by 10% - 15%.

I appreciate that things are a little different nowadays, with profits and customers harder to come by in the current climate. However, even if you can improve your menu design and really get a shift out of it every time someone reads it, even just a small percentage increase in profits would be welcome, I am certain.

For example, if your restaurant turnover is £500,000 a year and you can add just 1% to this with some clever menu design, that's an additional £5,000 a year just by improving your menu design. And that's not to mention giving a better first impression and enhancing your brand image to attract more customers in the first place.

So next time it comes to printing your menus, remember IT IS NOT JUST A FLYER, it's AN IMPORTANT PART OF YOUR MARKETING.

It's not just you

Don't worry, you're not the only one who doesn't give your menu much thought beyond listing your dishes, it's estimated that around 60% of restaurants don't perform any menu engineering, 30% do so on a small scale, with only 10% putting in high-quality effort in this area.

Let's end on a positive note, with an example of a wonderfully designed and engineered menu from the fantastic Dishoom restaurant. Their menu is designed in the style of a newspaper, with evocative descriptions and brand story around its well organised menu. A great example of reinforcing its street food brand style & enhancing the customer experience with a clean, simple and effective piece of design.