When the first-ever restaurant opened in Paris in the 18th century, menus weren’t even a concept. Diners ate whatever the chef prepared. As dining out became more popular, restaurants started drafting menus to inform guests of their options. Now, society would deem a menu-less restaurant as highly suspect.
As commonplace as the menu has become, creating one is easier said than done. What many don’t think about are the psychological triggers associated with the menu design, opting instead to crank them out as fast as possible to get back to business. But by falling prey to the five most common menu mistakes, you could be missing out on prime marketing opportunities and increased revenue.
The Five Pain Points of Restaurant Menus
Writing the perfect dish description is like walking a tight rope. Lean too far one way, you go down. Overcompensate and lean too far the other way, you go down. Manuel Beltran, Design and Digital Marketing Specialist for Risch, a premier design and manufacturing company of quality sewn, vinyl, and custom logo menu covers in the U.S.A., puts it this way:
“When creating a menu design, the most common mistake that I see is that too many of them seem ‘undone’. By that specifically, I mean that they are flat, inconsistent, and are oversaturated or undersaturated with text or images. Sometimes you get a menu that is a flat color with text, which is fine if you’re in grabbing dinner from the local Chinese take-out, but for your livelihood, you want your menu to compliment your brand, establishment and personality. Adding in some color, illustrations, photo’s or a beautiful border can break everything up, giving a nice resting area for your eyes to adjust from all the wording.”
The first common mistake many make when designing their menu is not including a description of the items. A brief description of what’s in the most popular dishes could encourage new guests to give them a shot. And we’re not just talking about just listing the main ingredients. Mention a bit about how it’s prepared and how it’ll be served. This way, you can answer the frequently asked questions upfront, and save the guest from badgering the wait staff.
However, it’s imperative the staff is trained to describe in detail what goes into each item. This is especially important for those with food allergies. It’s also crucial that your menu doesn’t overwhelm your customers. They don’t need a novel; they need just enough to feel confident about what they’re ordering. The second most common mistake is providing too much information. Some restaurants go as far as to detail where each ingredient is sourced, what type of premium china it’ll be served on, etc. Cut the fluff and keep only the necessary.
Modern cooking has given rise to grander technologies and techniques. These can confuse guests. A third problem is struggling to communicate these techniques in layman’s terms. Don’t overcomplicate your descriptions.
A fourth mistake is designing a menu around profit instead of customer choice. Chain restaurants are the biggest culprits here. Yes, we know it’s all about making money; however, highlight the most popular dishes above those with higher margin potential. Some restaurants design their menus solely to steer guests towards the items that’ll make the most profit. This isn’t inherently wrong but consider instead emphasizing those dishes you know are most popular. When guests are happy, the bottom line is happy.
The fifth and final pain point: menus can be conversation killers. As soon as the wait staff sits the menu on the table, one of two courses of action initiate: (1) everyone stops talking to browse over the menu in silence, or (2) the company continues talking to the point the server returns to ask if anyone has any questions at which point the table confesses to needing a few more minutes.
“Too often, an owner of a restaurant will want to provide a great variety of choices for their patrons, but if you’re a modern burger joint, I don’t see the symmetry with having a bowl of chicken pasta right under your cheeseburger! Adding in 100 menu items so that everyone’s distinct food cravings for the day can be met is a good idea, in theory. But in practice, it just skyrockets your produce bill and makes the freshness of your food plummet! Sticking with a set idea of foods to have will give your menu breathing space, allowing customers to look at your menu with a smile instead of with scanning, squinting eyes.”
See, writing a menu is a real balancing act. Fortunately, there are some tried and true solutions.
Restaurant Menu Psychology
Take an introductory writing course and the number one rule you’re likely to hear (over and over and over again) is show, don’t tell. The same rings true for writing your menu descriptions. You have an opportunity to use your words to generate excitement and show your customers the experience they can expect.
Your descriptions act as the design’s perfect partner. You can use your menu’s layout and design to draw your guests towards your signature items by boxing them in. Use caution with images. Too many could be distracting or misleading. Instead, we recommend opting for more white space for a cleaner visual flow. Strategically utilized white space can also prevent information overload, keeping your guests’ minds on the items you want them to order.
Keep in mind how the eye is programmed to work. For a three-section layout, the mind goes straight towards the center. In a two-section design, the eye tends to go to the center of the right column. Use this to your advantage to strategically place key menu items.
Additional menu design considerations:
Do you need dollar signs?
You may see them listed on upscale dining restaurants, but research conducted by the Culinary Institute of America saw sales increase more than 8% with restaurant menus without ($) or the word “dollars.”
When ala carte is important, separate the categories.
This encourages customers to order more when appetizers, soups, and salads are all segmented into their own section. Similarly, use a separate menu for desserts. If a customer eyes a delicious post-meal dessert on the main menu, they may opt to forgo the appetizer.
‘Combo Meals’ can work in any environment.
People enjoy decisions made easy. Though you may not wish to call the Filet Mignon specialty a “#5 Value Meal,” you may want to consider advertising signature dishes with a complementary side(s). Customers gravitate towards these. It’s not about a bundled savings; it’s about making the ordering decision easier.
Pair popular dishes with a unique symbol.
These create a certain prestige that draws customers to select items, especially when they have difficulty choosing, and they’ll usually pay a premium to see what the fuss is about.
Putting it All Together: Writing and Designing an Effective Restaurant Menu
“It can be scary to have something designed for the first time,” Beltran affirms. “Often, I find that it’s almost like buying your first car; the big words, the constantly changing industry standard, and of course, the trends! But just like buying your first car (or any car for that matter) there is one secret that many people look past…. Research! It’s very rare that you buy a car without reading up on it online first, so why do the same for your menu? Look at what the current trends for your type of restaurant is out there, look at magazines or online editorials for examples of design ideas you would like to implement.”
How you describe your menu items directly affects the customer’s buying decision. The right words can make an ordinary meal extraordinary. Experiment with different, powerful adjectives such as aromatic, caramelize, fire-grilled, etc., to make your menu options appear like exclusive experiences. There’s also a hidden benefit to this: it makes it more difficult to price compare to a similar dish from a competitor.
Beltran offers up two things to keep in mind when writing menu descriptions:
“First, what is your typical audience? If you’re tie and jacket only, you’ll want to stick away from wacky or overexaggerated adjectives, slang, or exclamation points. Instead of describing a steak as ‘This HUGE Steak is pure Mouthwaterin’ Goodness!’ try and describe it with some finesse like ‘10 oz of Succulent Prime USDA Beef Smoked and Braised Until Tender’. Always be aware of different ways to say a word. Rather than good, say something is excellent. Tasty? Try Delectable. The possibilities are endless when it comes to synonyms.
“Second, you never know when the market will change. One month the price for chicken wings could be a steal, and the next, it jumps up over 110%! Keeping itemized values out of your menu will help when these things inevitably happen. It saves you from having to sharpie out a number on your beautiful menu! Instead of writing that 8 Jumbo Wings come with the appetizer, just describing them is more than enough. If there ever is a change and the customer instead gets 5 instead, they will feel like they were robbed, and will not only leave a bad experience for all involved, but in the day where social media is within an arm’s length at all times, this could cause great harm to both you as a business professional and your brand.”
After you have the menu written and designed, it’s time for printing. It’s surprising how little thought many give to professional printing services. The last thing you want, after you’ve put in all the hard work to develop your menu, is to use an unreliable home printer whose insufficient quality can distract from your menu items. Risch offers professional menu printing services in both color or black and white to make sure your design and descriptions are as clear and emphasized as possible.
Risch is the name to trust when it comes to menus, offering a huge selection of custom logo menu covers, deluxe sewn menu jackets, heated sealed vinyl, display signs, and more. They understand how the menu translates to your overall ambiance and brand image and are here to help you tell your story. If design isn’t your strong suit, Risch restaurant menu design services help you draft up your dream to make it a reality. Call 800.215.9293 to get started.
Chase joined Central Restaurant Products in February 2016 as a Content Specialist, bringing to the role years of various foodservice experience, including front-of-house service (slingin’ chicken wings and libations with a smile on his face) and back-of-house food prep using heavy-duty commercial cooking equipment to prepare for peak dining hours at his university’s dining hall.
He puts this experience to use writing for Central’s Resource Center, website, and print catalog. ServSafe certified, he enjoys educating on food safety in the commercial setting, researching new dining room and tabletop trends, and sharing innovative solutions to enhance operational efficiencies. He also enjoys (in no specific order) long hikes with his dog, bingeing 90s sitcoms, red wine, and live music.