Menu of Options: How to Represent What You Present

Think back to the last menu that you saw. You’ve probably seen one recently, considering that, according to the National Restaurant Association, Americans spend 49 percent of their food dollars at restaurants. Did the menu leave an impression on you, or was it just a means to an end?

The unsung art and science of menu design is of intense interest to chefs, restaurant owners and restaurant consultants because a better menu can mean a more successful business. Like a magician, a good menu designer can enter the imagination of the diners, embedding a multi-sensory fantasy that tantalizes the mind, body and palate. Restaurant patrons order items based on how the menu makes them feel. Here is a basic outline of things to consider when planning your menu, but it’s up to you to cast the magic spell.

There are more options than ever for how to present the items served at your business. This can be an advantage, but it can also make getting started difficult because there are so many choices to make. You should always consider your clientele, the overall feel of your restaurant/café/shop and the items that you will be serving as you process the decision for what menu
to select.

Menu Boards
Casual concepts like storefront shops and quick service cafes often prefer menu boards to handheld menus because their clientele is typically on the go and doesn’t have time to read a full menu. Plus a menu board can accommodate many items or just a few, and is easier to change than handheld menus. The traditional way to do a menu board is to have it printed on large panels that hang above your serving area. But unfortunately, when it’s time to update your menu offerings, you either have to reprint the whole board or make individual additions (which can look tacky). Worse yet, if you don’t want to mess up your printed board with additions, you may be more likely not to make any changes at all to your menu, which is an even bigger no-no.

Some shops and cafes have an aesthetic that will allow for an even more casual menu board made out of either chalkboard or whiteboard. This is best if you have a frequently changing menu or have an artistic employee with nice penmanship who enjoys making a creative statement. Another easily changeable option is an electronic menu board, typically made out of flat screen monitors, LCDs or televisions hung above the serving area. With a little bit of technological savvy (or a good graphic designer), an electronic menu can involve pictures, animations and even space for advertisements (internal or external). Electronic menu boards can be eye-catching, but one big pitfall is being too busy, flashy or fast-moving. Be wary of this as customers want a chance to read the menu at a glance, not blink and miss it!

Handheld Print Menus
Another option is handheld menus, which can be either printed or electronic. Even businesses with menu boards often have a printed menu as well for catering or takeout customers. Printed, hand-held menus provide customers the freedom to browse at their leisure and are usually best for a sit-down environment. One of the main benefits of handheld menus is that they are easy to read and can be artistically designed to enhance the atmosphere of the establishment. The downside of printed menus are that they are expensive to update since any change will require a complete reprint, not to mention that they naturally experience a great deal of wear and tear from daily handling.

Graphic design is very important to a successful handheld menu, so it is wise to consider hiring a professional designer from the beginning. A Gallup study has shown that customers only spend an average of 109 seconds reading a handheld menu before making a decision about what to order, so you have a limited amount of time to get your message across. A skilled designer will know the appropriate physical size to make your menu based on the items you want to sell, how to make the most of the menu space (see Picture A on next page), the proper type and size of font to use and how to draw the eye to featured items. To get inspired, visit for some excellent examples of menus that range from low-end to high-end cuisine.

Electronic Handheld & Table Menus
On the cutting edge of menu technology are electronic handheld menus which stem from the popularity of tablet computers such as the iPad. Traditional POS (point of sale) system manufacturers are now coming out with systems that allow customers to place food and drink orders themselves from their table. In addition to handsets that look like tablet computers, there are also digital menus that are embedded directly into the table (or wall beside the table) with fun features like mp3 player connectivity and trivia or games while you wait for your order. Although the initial cost for adding a system like this is quite high, the payoff could be huge due to reduced printing costs, greater order accuracy and the novelty factor.

Another huge advantage of an integrated menu and ordering system is the ability to accurately track sales information. This data can be used to learn more about what customers order and when, provide real-time inventory information and help to trim unnecessary menu items (see Figure 1). But regardless of what type of menu you choose to use, it’s what’s on that menu that counts. Professional cooks and chefs learn how to develop a menu based on flavors and courses in culinary school. Restaurateurs learn how to develop a menu based on inventory and food costs in business school. It takes a combination of both these skills to develop a truly successful end product. Since every foodservice business is so different, it’s hard to make generalizations, but here are a few things that hold true.

Spoken Menus
Although not as widely used, another option that leans toward the upscale is the spoken or presented menu. There is something very exclusive about a waiter or even a maître d’ describing the dishes on a menu in detail, and special treatment like this can really add to a diner’s experience (and a server’s tip). Traditionally, desserts have been displayed on a cart at fine dining restaurants, which is then wheeled around to diners at the conclusion of their meal. This is very persuasive, as people who see desserts rights in front of them are more likely to take notice than just seeing a few lines of text at the end of the dinner menu. Not to mention that when a dessert cart is wheeled around, even diners who aren’t ready for dessert yet have a chance to see what is available and “save room” for something they want. Presented menus are not just limited to dessert; they are also often used to display meats and seafood for entrees. Using a strictly spoken or presented menu can be quite challenging, but incorporating some of these tactics in addition to a text menu is worth consideration. And of course, a well-trained and knowledgeable staff is crucial to the success of any menu.

Planning Your Menu
No matter what your concept is, the menu should be a blend of the expected and the unexpected. For your business, that may mean providing standard fare such as coffee, tea, soda and espresso drinks, then taking some creative liberties with items such as root beer floats, alcoholic milkshakes and other drinkable desserts. To really make a name for your business, you should have at least one signature item that differentiates you from your competition. Your signature item doesn’t have to be a brand new invention, but it should be something that your customers love enough that it deserves notoriety and it should be a little unique. You’ve probably seen a million “famous” macaroni & cheese or “original” cheesecake claims, but the only reason that anybody will ever care about them is if they’re actually good.

Just like the perfect pair of jeans, the fit of your menu is key. It needs to meet the needs of your clientele, be in the right price range and be on trend. Regarding pricing, there is no exact science, just the practice of charging enough to contain a food cost of 30 percent (or less) while appearing to be reasonable compared to nearby alternatives. In the food business, rarely is it a good thing to be the cheapest guy in town, so rather than having bare-bones pricing, focus on creating value for your customers. That’s how the combo meal got started, and it has been very successful for the fast food industry. As you move your way up the food chain, everything from fast casual to upscale fine dining establishments have some version of a prix fixe menu to push diners toward high margin items that are practical to inventory and prepare. Your menu should have a good mix of low cost and higher cost items on it, but make sure to track your sales to see what is actually moving. If customers are gravitating towards items at a certain price point, try to manipulate portion sizes or ingredients to create more options that can be
similarly priced.

Of course, adjustments are good for all parts of the menu, not just pricing. For example, you may notice an increased interest in gluten-free options or get requests for trendy ingredients like chia seeds. Don’t ignore these clues until it’s too late, but strive to strike a balance between trying new items without distracting from your main focus. Every menu should have some “limited time offers” which can be used as a testing ground for new items or a way to advertise seasonal dishes. It’s the oldest trick in the book, but scarcity is a powerful sales motivator, so use verbiage such as “seasonal special,” “limited time only” or even “get it while it lasts!” Considering that you will be changing your LTOs frequently, if you have printed menus or board, you can always add an additional piece such as a poster, a tablecard or a menu insert. Then incentivize your staff to advertise the LTOs with contests and prizes (monetary or otherwise) to maximize the chance that customers will order them.

When menuing desserts specifically, there is an art to balancing the flavors that customers crave. Whether you offer five, fifteen or fifty desserts, the same general rules apply. First of all, there must be chocolate. Although pastry chefs have been pushing the bounds of delicate and complex flavors in desserts, it appears there is just no substitute for good old chocolate. It is a comfort food and perpetual favorite that has stood the test of time and is always in demand. That being said, one shouldn’t feel limited to the same old brownie ala mode; there are so many options on the scale that range from “just a hint” like a verrine with a chocolate layer to “chocolate overload” like a molten chocolate cake or dark chocolate sorbetto.

Some other basic flavors needed to round out a dessert menu are items with fruits/citrus/nuts and something creamy or custard-like. Just as there are those who cannot imagine ending a meal without chocolate, there are others who want nothing more than a refreshing lemon tart. Using seasonal fruits, nuts and spices is an excellent way to incorporate a limited time offering into your dessert menu; they lend themselves well to both simple and complex preparations. For yet others, dessert is not really dessert without the silky smoothness of a crème brûlée, tiramisù or cheesecake. Dairy-intensive items like these are best when made in-house and always look beautiful on a dessert cart. Texture is also a big consideration, so make sure to balance your menu with desserts that are crunchy, chewy, creamy, fluffy, frozen or a combination of these. Every dessert menu should have something like gelato, sorbet, ice cream, frozen yogurt or a frozen beverage. Not only do frozen desserts stand well on their own, they can also complement a variety of other menu items.

With so much to consider when developing a menu, it’s surprising that on the whole they are so unremarkable. Part of getting people to notice a menu is having something different about it – whether it’s format, size, color or text. If you feel your menu is not getting the attention it deserves, have someone outside your business look at it and tell you their first impression. And, of course, your menu should not be confined to just your bricks and mortar location; make sure to have an updated menu online (either with or without prices). People love to shop online, so why not let them “shop” for your food with detailed descriptions (and even pictures). Another way to go home with your customers is to have simple, printed take-away menus. This works especially well if you are prepared to do takeout business or catering, but even if you’re not these menus can still serve as an excellent advertisement and can be given to other local businesses like hotels to drive traffic to your location.

Remember, there’s no second chance to make a first impression, so capture your customer’s imagination with the first thing they’re served – your menu!