Can the consumer and restaurateur ever agree on a menu? The many factors that go into menu management involve a fine balance of profit and customer expectation. G&L spoke with three experts on this matter to get some advice on the nuances of crafting and managing a menu and have boiled it down to the Essentials of a Winning Menu.
Let’s face it. You’re in the business to make money. Every expert invited to discuss menu management, named this as one of the top factors in the creation of a menu. Karen Bremer, executive director of the Georgia Restaurant Association said, “The cardinal rule of menu making is to check the cost first.”
But analyzing cost alone is not enough. Profit margins are a huge deciding factor of what appears on a menu and how you price it. The general rule and industry standard is to keep your food cost at about 30%. Pasta dishes however, may run closer to 10% food cost. Steaks and seafood may run closer to 40%.
Robert Douds of Georgia State University’s Robinson College of Business in Atlanta, Georgia gave this example: Say you’re selling a meatloaf at $12 with a food cost of $3. That’s 25% and a profit of $9 per plate of meatloaf served. If you have a lobster tail that costs you $15 to make, but you can sell for $25, the percent food cost is higher at 40% but you are making $1 more, per unit sold. Douds says that he tells his students, “You can’t bank percentages” and that is where both cost and profit margin need to be under consideration when creating a menu.
2. A good menu reflects the theme of your restaurant.
I don’t go to the sports bar down the street expecting an extensive wine list or an a la carte style list of tapas. I go for the beer and food I can eat with my hands because that is the expectation I have for a sports bar. All the same, I do not want to see pizza at my local mom and pop, deepfried, soul food joint or sushi at the elegant French restaurant I have been waiting months to get a table at.
Dr. Donetta Poisson, also a visiting lecturer at the Robinson College of Business, says this is an important first step to crafting a menu, “Make sure the menu reflects your restaurant.” Your menu should have a very clear and easy to understand concept that reflects the thematic model of your restaurant. A hungry customer may be looking for an Italian restaurant with the expectation of the standards like spaghetti, lasagna, or even Italian wines. If your menu is delivering items like burgers and wings, odds are your customer is not going to be left with a favorable impression of your restaurant. Your consumer is going to have certain expectations at times that may not be the most cost effective option for you like, leaving a 32oz porterhouse steak on the menu, despite the fact that your food costs are probably higher on that particular item. If you are trying to make a name for yourself as a reputable steakhouse, there is an expectation that you have that porterhouse steak. Key items like this add to your reputation and clout when you are trying to set yourself apart.
3. A good menu is regularly updated.
If your menu is touting something along the lines of vine ripe tomatoes in February, your customer is going to know something is up. Regular menu change is a good thing for both the consumer and the restaurateur. For the customer, a menu that is changing can offer new options and fresher options of produce based on season and location. For the establishment, this is a great time to analyze your costs and decide if adjustments need to be made to increase profits.
Seasonally is a good place to start with how often you change your menu, but much of it really depends on what type of restaurant you own. Obviously, you will have some items that do not change from update to update. But for a specialty restaurant in your hotel or casino, having a weekly specials listing can be used to drive business on slower days. If you know people love your secret family beef stew recipe and you’re business on Thursday nights is pretty slow, make Thursday the stew special and drive the business with a once a week offering of one of the crowd favorites.
Karen Bremer, having been an owner and operator of restaurants for 35 years before stepping into her current role with the Georgia Restaurant Association, said that you should be looking at your menu and comparing it to your food cost and your profit margins on both a daily and weekly basis. Bremer also discussed the ability to “move your kitchen” as a potential limiting factor to your menu changes. If you want to add calamari and coconut shrimp to your summer seasonal menu, you better have more than one deep fryer, otherwise you cannot keep up with the volume.
Menu changing does not always have to be a huge overhaul though. Keeping both a lunch menu, with smaller portions, and a dinner menu, with larger portions and a higher mark up, is a good way to offer customers in a business district satisfied when they transition from lunch with the guys and dinner with the clients.
4. A good menu is your best marketing tool.
Make sure your menu is doing its job as a marketing piece.” Says Dr. Poisson. With her 15 years of industry experience in restaurant management, she gave me the lowdown on this crucial part of the menu.
Color, placement, readability, descriptions, and placement of menu items are all crucial to a good menu. Menu psychology is a quickly growing field of study and the flow of how individuals read menus is very important to know. Just like in a retail model, you put the items you want to push at eye level. The center of the page is prime real estate and should showcase your best low cost / high volume items.
Overall document design cannot be understated either. If your menu is hard to read, the diners won’t give your menu more than a glance and they could miss menu options that sound more appetizing than what they ultimately settled upon. General document design rules are in place such as the amount of white space (both horizontally and vertically), the font and font size, and color schemes. If your pub-inspired sports bar, with it’s rustic reclaimed barn-wood tables and solid mahogany bar, has hot-pink menus with a delicate cursive font, you are going to give your customer some serious thematic whiplash. The descriptions of the food or accompanying pictures are your silent sellers. On a packed Friday night, your servers may be slammed and cannot afford to spend time discussing each menu item and what it contains with the diners. Instead, a detailed description (including any allergens that may be present) is a good start for your customer’s self-exploration of the menu. The pictured items in a menu are also a great way to help the customer visualize what they are ordering and set an expectation level for the food they have coming.
5. Less is more
If you really want to leave your customer with the best impression after eating at your restaurant, then only serve them the best of the best. A menu with just a handful of items is not necessarily a bad thing, if you can do those few items extremely well. This was Karen Bremer’s top sentiment when we spoke about what makes a good menu and she said this is always the direction she takes in designing a menu: “Make sure you’ll be able to produce the items on your menu in a high volume and a low volume setting.”
Keeping similar items that are at different price points is an excellent way give your menu some diversity, “The rich man’s steak, and the poor man’s steak.” At a lower price point offer a delicious chicken dish, and as a higher priced poultry dish, offer duck. Different cuts of steak vary greatly in price, but can often be prepped or cooked in a very similar manner.
With limited space, comes a greater responsibility to know the demographics of your customer. A five star multi-course traditional French restaurant is not going to do very well in a small, locals venue. When you cut down your items and still try and remain true to your thematic expression, considering who is your diner becomes extremely important because there is only so much variety you can offer on one menu.
So there is a lot to consider when crafting or revamping your menu. So in gearing up for 2014, take a look at your menu and see what changes you can make. A new year with a new menu sounds like a good resolution to me.
Matthew English is a writer and editor based in Atlanta, Georgia. He studies rhetoric at Georgia State University and has published pieces ranging in genre from humor to literary analysis and academic prose. Matthew is always looking for new writing ventures and can be reached at email@example.com.