Restaurant Success Starts With Your Menu

March 21, 2013 - 9 minutes read

Guest post by Donald Burns

Your menu is your #1 marketing tool in your restaurant. However, many operators – especially new ones in particular – either underestimate or don’t realize the profound effect that a menu will have on their profitability. As a result, many restaurants pay a steep price for menu missteps and missed opportunities when they could avoid them with a little planning.

Here’s a collection of some Menu Sins and Menu Golden Rules. My number one principle in running a restaurant is this: Try it, if it works, do more of that. If is does not, then try something else. If that doesn’t work, try something else. If that doesn’t work, try something else. The restaurant business is changing and restaurant operators need to change with it. So, what are you prepared to do?

6 Menu Sins:

Don’t use plastic laminated menus. They’re expensive and will probably keep you from making necessary menu changes on a regular basis. Plastic covers with the appropriate paper inserts can give you the look you want and more flexibility in terms of being able to change your menu quickly and inexpensively.

Don’t place items within a menu section in any type of order. When your menu items are shown vertically, one below the other, make sure the ones you want to sell most are shown first and last (called the sweet spot in menu design). Numerous surveys have shown that items in the top and bottom positions are typically the biggest sellers, while the ones in the middle tend to get overlooked and selected less often. Use your product sales mix report on a regular basis to find out what items are selling the best and change them around from time to time.

Don’t overlook the kids. For families with kids, the kids menu is a big deal. You must have an effective game plan for addressing the wants and needs of children if you want to attract families with kids. Numerous consumer surveys tell us that children today play a major role in deciding where the family eats. With kids, anything you can do to make the food fun and involve them will be noticed and appreciated. I perfer that kids menus be a totally separate menu that has games, puzzles and activities to color. Keeping the kids engaged is a big hit with parents.

Don’t do “across the board” price changes. Eventually you’ll have to increase prices and when you do, don’t change prices on a large number of items at one time. When you do there is a greater potential for customers to notice and become annoyed. Instead, perform surgical price increases on a few items at a time. Consider changing prices more frequently, at least two or three times a year so you’re not forced to make wholesale changes when you do. I am shocked when I speak with clients who have not changed their menu prices in over three years! If you make changes on a regular basis, your customers are less likely to complain. Not saying they won’t, it just won”t be a huge shock to them.

Don’t use $ signs.  People have a funny way of looking at menu prices. Research has shown that people will spend and average of 10-20% more if you leave the $ sign off of your menus. Psycologists suggest that without the $sign, people do not relate the item with money. Strange but true. Try it.

Don’t price your menu items solely on an item’s food cost. Take into consideration your local “market prices” by examining your competitor’s price points for similar items. Be sure to take quality and portion size differences into account. Base your pricing decisions on an item’s food cost and local “market prices.”

5 Menu Golden Rules:

Calculate the raw food cost of every item you sell. This makes it easy to calculate every item’s “gross profit margin.” In each section of the menu rank your menu offerings by profit margin. Use your menu to promote those high gross profit margin items in each section of the menu as long as they are also good, quality products that your customers will love.

Make your menus easy to read. Use typeface of 12 points or larger and use font styles that are easy to read like Arial, Helvetica or Times New Roman. As the average age of our population increases, more of your customers may have trouble reading small, hard-to-read typeface.

Use graphics to attract attention to those items you really want to sell. With the use of graphic symbols and effects like boxes, shaded backgrounds and signature icons, you can force your guest’s eyeballs anywhere you want. It’s a fact that menu items that get noticed more, get selected more.

What customers are buying, do more of that. Soon after opening, your “popular” menu items will start to emerge. Hopefully, at least a few of your highly popular items will also be highly profitable. If so, why not come up with other dishes like them. For example, the Parmesan taste profile. If your veal Parmesan is working, what else can you “parm”? Why not parm the chicken? Chicken tastes great and is a lot cheaper than veal. If the chicken works, why not try eggplant parm (the all-time food cost champ)? Duplicating your winners can be a very successful strategy because you already know what your customers like. Remember though, only consider only duplicating your “winners,” that are both popular and profitable.

Tell your story. Chances are good that your customers are not mind readers. If you make your own dough, or prepare your sauces from scratch, use your menu to tell them. The back cover can be an excellent place to tell your guests all the little things you do and the special, high-quality ingredients you use. Not everyone will take note but some will and to those customers those little things make a difference.

The menu is one of the most important “critical success factors” in any restaurant. The menu is the only marketing piece that every one of your customers will read and it will have a direct bearing on what each of your customers decides to buy. Successfully integrating one or more of these ideas should go a long way toward making your menu a more effective marketing and profit-building tool.

Donald Burns

Donald Burns

Donald Burns, The Restaurant Coach™ is the leading authority, author and speaker on how restaurant owners and operators go from just good to becoming exceptional. He helps independent operators create organizations that thrive and bring out their workers’ natural strengths to reach their peak potential. His The Restaurant Coach™ Podcast can be found on iTunes, his blog with tips, tools and techniques for restaurant owners, operators and chefs can be found at

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