Should You Expand Your Menu?

Are you thinking about expanding your restaurant’s offerings? There’s more to it than creating some recipes and printing new menus.

First, why are you doing it? Are customers requesting certain dishes? Do you want to expand on your concept’s theme? Is innovation and experimentation part of your business model? You need to have a good reason. (Hint: Being bored is not a good reason.)

Without a clear rationale, you risk overloading your menu and wasting money. “A big mistake is to have too many items on the menu,” says Greg Overbeck of Chapel Hill Restaurant Group, which has six restaurants in the Research Triangle region of North Carolina. “We tend to go this way to try to please everyone. Instead, do what you do well.”

Making the Decision

Rather than adding items on a whim, be strategic. “We take into consideration the chef’s expression, and we keep up on trends in California, New York and Las Vegas — the major food trend centers,” Overbeck says. “We’re frequently checking menus around the country. We like to offer new things, new items our guests haven’t had before.”

At Top Pot Hand-Forged Doughnuts in Seattle, menu expansion is part of the business model. “We believe in innovation,” says Mark Klebeck, co-founder and owner. He started with core items, adding flavors like maple to turn the usual donut suspects into maple bars. Then, as the customer base grew, so did the menu. “We started with exotics like salted caramel and applied that to a donut, trying to stay innovative and not disappoint the people who came in for the favorites.”

Tim Burke, owner of In a Pickle in Waltham, MA, suggests seeking input from wait staff, too. “You need to routinely poll your front-line staff to find out if customers have been requesting specific menu items you don’t currently carry,” he says. “You don’t want to have a menu so big that it overwhelms both your guests and kitchen, or be so limited that your customers seek other restaurants to get what they desire.”

That’s the art. Here’s the science.

“You have to have good sales figures and analytics, and pay attention to those figures. What’s selling? What is not selling?” Overbeck explains. “Whenever you expand, it also greatly affects inventory, which is another consideration. If you’re only selling two or three servings of a dish every night, then maybe it’s just not worth it. If it’s not selling well, it affects food costs. Sales figures drive all your decisions.”

And don’t forget to budget for kitchen equipment and restaurant supplies required to make new menu items. “Some dishes can’t be performed on a large scale without specific equipment,” Burke says. “For instance, you can fry things in a cast iron pan, but on a large scale you’ll want to get a stand-alone fryer.” You may also need special serving vessels or utensils, which increase budget, too.

Before you decide to try something new, run the numbers yourself and then run them by your accountant.

Starting Small

Menu expansion involves a lot of trial and error. Most restaurateurs start small, introducing potential new menu items as specials rather than placing them on the regular menu. This helps avoid costly mistakes like “forcing something onto the customer that they don’t care for,” Burke says. The incremental specials approach makes it easy to track popularity via sales and feedback from guests. It also makes it easy to tweak recipes and sets.

When considering a menu expansion, start small. “People get carried away with too much,” Klebeck says. “I’d rather have a simple menu with amazing selections and fresh food. Overkill is frustrating.”

Seattle-based Jamie Peha has more than 30 years of experience in the restaurant, beverage and culinary industry, and has worn many hats throughout her successful career. Find Jamie on Google+. Margot Carmichael Lester has been a freelance business writer in Carrboro, NC, for more than 30 years. Find Margot on Google+.

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