4 Keys to the Best Menu Design


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Best Menu Design

One of the most important factors to driving restaurant sales is menu design. Unfortunately, this is the one area where restaurateurs pay the least amount of attention, thinking that food and atmosphere will be enough to drive sales. While this might be true in some restaurants, it certainly isn’t true in all and it definitely does not account for the fact that a well-designed menu doesn’t just drive sales, it optimizes them.

The Four Keys to the Best Menu Design

In fact, menu design is so important to a restaurant’s success that the Cornell University Center for Hospitality Research has conducted numerous studies on the subject.  In each study, the following points were found to be true across all categories of food and types of restaurants.

Key Number One:  Do Not Remind the Customer that They are Spending Money

When a person goes out to dinner for a nice meal, they do so with the expectation that they are going to spend money.  A menu doesn’t have to remind them of this fact by placing a dollar sign ($) next to the price.  All this does is reminds the customer that the meal is costing a tangible amount of money and will take the customer out of the tasting experience and more into the “do I really want to spend this much on pasta?” state of mind.  The last thing a restaurant wants filling their tables is a bunch of cost-conscious, penny-pinching diners–and neither does the wait staff.

Simply leave the dollar sign off the menu altogether. Cornell’s studies have not only shown this increases sales by 8%, but show dollar signs decrease the amount of money customers spend. The number is enough to convey the price–if it feels naked, add a dash after the number, not pennies which screams desperation.  Additionally, having a softer number such as “9” instead of “10” looks better and makes a customer more likely to try a dish.

Key Number Two: The Design of Detailing

Another key to killer menu design is in the actual design element itself.  When it really comes down to it, menus are simply advertisements for the food and drink the restaurant serves.  As such, they can be treated – to some extent – as print advertisements. For example, the same way that magazine ads and billboards try to attract the eye to specific areas, menus can use this same neurological manipulation to attract the diner’s eye to desired locations. These locations will normally house higher-profiting dishes or specials.

According to popular neuroscience-marketing techniques, any menu items that the restaurateur wants to draw attention to, simply using common design techniques such as drawing boxes, using white or negative space or even something as blatant as a picture will get the job done.  In restaurants where photos are taboo (i.e. fine dining establishments), any other type of graphic embellishment that draws the viewer’s attention will suffice.

For example, some menus use a handwritten “specials” section which is embedded in the menu. While this might be “tacky” in certain establishments, in others it does the trick.  Upscale restaurant menus have been known to use graphics such as the fleur-de-lis to attract the viewer’s attention to a specific area or item on the menu.  The key here is not to be overtly distracting from the flow of the menu, but just enough to highlight the desired item or selection.

Key Number Three:  Give Customers a Dish, Not Food

Next, restaurants should always design their menu in a manner that conveys the dishes are well put together and that is what the customer is getting: well thought-out dishes, not just food lumped together.  This can be accomplished by using descriptive text, something that studies found increased sales by a whopping 27%.  Descriptive text transforms food into dishes the same way it transforms “mashed potatoes” into “Grandma’s Garlic Mashed Potatoes, Smothered w/ Love.”

By creating imagery around the dish, the menu is able to play on a customer’s other senses, helping them to envision how great the food will taste before they even order.  There are four major categories for descriptive text in menu design:

  1. Nostalgic Descriptors.  Plays on a customer’s nostalgia and memories of growing up e.g. Grandma’s Garlic Mashed Potatoes, Aunt Bea’s Country Fried Steak, Ye Olde Mutton Chop, etc.
  2. Sensory Descriptors.  Plays on a customer’s imagery of taste e.g. Plump Roasted Duck, Butter Broiled Veal, Succulent Young Lamb, etc.
  3. Brand Descriptors.  Plays on brand recognition e.g. Jack Daniels Smoky BBQ Chicken, Patron Tequila Sizzled Shrimp, etc.
  4. Geographic Descriptors. Plays on the flavors associated with regions e.g. Southwestern Taco Salad, Boston Chowder, New York Cheesecake, etc.

Additionally, the same studies show that not only do these descriptive text dishes increase sales by influencing customers to order them more, diners also enjoy the dish more than if they’d ordered the same foodwithout the descriptive text. Try placing descriptive text on high-profit dishes to sway sales towards them and away from low-profit dishes.

Key Number Four:  Product Placement Optimizes Profit

Finally, where items are placed on the menu helps to optimize the profit according to the University of California Berkeley Wellness Center.  For example, a menu designed properly will have “decoy” meals at the top of the menu. Decoy meals are higher-priced dishes that make the rest of the food on the menu look more affordable by comparison.  The goal here is to increase the number of higher-profiting dish sales by making them look more attractive.

A common decoy dish is a top-grade steak or lobster that might seem out of place with the rest of the menu. In fact, it is not surprising to go to a restaurant and order the decoy meal, only to be told the kitchen is all out.  This adds perceived value to the decoy, upping the probability that the diner will come back to try to successfully order that “elusive” item.

As you can see, menu design is a vital part of running a restaurant. Optimizing the menu design optimizes sales.


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