Creating Menus That Sell Your Product & Your Brand

Whether leather bound, laminated or fresh sheet, your menu communicates your brand to guests. Beyond telling diners what’s available to eat, menus and menu boards can influence what people order, their perceptions of the restaurant and your profit margin.

As you plan your menu, be sure to evaluate your kitchen’s production capabilities. “Long before you start your menu layout, you need to determine what you can realistically produce,” says Maureen “Mo” Shaw, principal of Mo Shaw Hospitality Consulting in Seattle, WA. This will drive how many items per category you can include on the menu. After you determine that, you can then learn how to design a menu that will encourage certain types of behaviors — and orders — from your guests.

Menu Design Tips & Tricks

Now that you know what you will be selling, remember that where you place menu items on the page is critical. “In general, people read left to right,” says Donetta Poisson, lecturer at Cecil B. Day School of Hospitality Administration, J. Mack Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University in Atlanta. “Think about where you look first on any page and put key items in that place.”

Items that are read first and last on the menu sell at a higher volume, so use that real estate to improve your bottom line. Just make sure items featured here have low food costs and are quick to prepare, like pasta or appetizers. Another way to focus guests’ attention is by using an “anchor” item. A steakhouse might offer a pricy 32-ounce porterhouse steak, making nearby, less expensive menu items appear to be better values.

Our experts offer these additional tips for good menu design:

  • Categorize items so guests can easily find them
  • Use boxes, bold typeface or other elements to highlight menu areas and keep the menu from looking like a page of text
  • Avoid offbeat fonts that look “cool” or trendy but are hard to read or don’t support your vision
  • Entice diners with “make me want it” descriptions that include cooking method, seasonings and/or ingredients

Print It Up

Once optimum menu design is determined, consider your printing options. “Producing menus in house provides versatility; you can change quickly and adapt to seasonality, guest feedback, pricing or product availability,” says Shaw. Choose a high-quality volume printer and factor in hidden costs like ink cartridges and toner and administrative time to print and proof, which add up quickly. Will you add a menu cover? It’s another expense, but also one that protects pages and limits waste.

Using a copy and print center makes sense if you have a core menu that doesn’t change regularly or if you have multiple locations. Adding a fresh sheet to your basic format provides versatility, allowing you to expand diners’ options with daily specials or seasonal offerings.

A Valuable Marketing Tool

Beyond the food offering, your menu is also an important marketing piece that promotes your restaurant. “A menu is 100 percent guaranteed to be read by every customer,” points out Poisson. “It has to capture what the restaurant is about.”

The menu should correlate with the restaurant’s theme and personality, keeping the brand front and center. For example, Gracie’s in the Hotel deLuxe in Portland, OR, has an Old Hollywood theme, befitting the building’s Art Deco era and the proximity of local theaters. “We’ve played on this, organizing the menu into Opening Acts, Center Stage and Final Call,” says executive chef Mark Hosack.

When posted for passersby, well-designed and appetizing menu signs and menu boards can draw in patrons. “If a customer walks into a restaurant, they’re coming in for a reason,” says Poisson. “It’s not like retail, where you can be ‘just looking around.’”

Take It to Go

Your menu speaks for your business beyond the restaurants walls, as well. Menus are taken by customers as souvenirs and used by hotel concierges for recommending dining options. Create low-cost versions of your menu for these purposes, and make sure to include the restaurant logo or some other identifying information, like your Web site and social media profiles.

A well-crafted menu provides dual benefits as a profit center and marketing tool. Make sure the time and energy you commit to its creation deliver results to your bottom line.

Anne Nisbet has spent her career working with chefs in restaurants, catering and culinary event production, absorbing their tips, tricks and tales along the way. She is the culinary director for the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, OR, where she lives and dreams of some day raising chickens and honeybees. You can find her on Google+.

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