6 strategies for designing the perfect menu

6 strategies for designing the perfect menu

By Rosie Atkins, VP of product management,Upserve

If you think of a menu as merely a list of food and prices, you’re missing out on a big opportunity. A strategically designed menu has the power to set guest expectations and increase sales.

Just think for a moment of the wide variety of menu styles out there. A prix-fixe fine-dining establishment may have a simple, elegant card that explains the evening’s offerings, while a rowdy family restaurant might instead go with a multi-page epic, wisely encased in washable vinyl.

One of the most memorable restaurant menu designs I’ve seen came on a plastic lobster bib. While this obviously wouldn’t be appropriate for a French bistro, it was the perfect way for this lobster and clam shack to upsell the lobster while also letting guests know to anticipate a fun and messy meal.

The best menus accomplish what those bibs did: They give customers a clear set of dining choices, tell a small part of the restaurant’s story and sell the right items to the right guests at the right time.

Creating menu magic

Believe it or not, designing a menu involves much more than picking out a font and slapping some pictures on the page. Positioning items smartly can mean the difference between a dud and a new customer favorite. Use the following six tactics to make your menu shine and ensure that customers keep coming back for more.

1. Start with data. While a plate’s cost-to-price ratio is important, it’s not the sole factor in determining an item’s success. By tracking restaurant menu analytics, you’ll be able to determine which menu items drive return visitors, larger check sizes, and even a greater frequency of visits.

One useful tactic is dividing your menu items up into these data-driven categories:

  •  Greatest hits: The driving force behind most return visits. Your greatest hits also create your top advocates — that guest who orders the mussels on every visit is likely to bring friends in to try them. Keep these dishes on the menu and pair them with complementary items that will drive up guest spend while delivering guest delight.
  • Hidden gems: The next rung down from your biggest sellers. With a little push, these could become your next big hit. Make sure you’re shining a spotlight on them in your menu design.
  •  One-hit wonders: Ordered frequently but rarely by returning visitors. Examine why these seem appealing but ultimately disappoint. It could be that the menu is not setting the right expectations, but it could be that the dish simply isn’t that great. Scan your reviews, check out the dishes that come back to the kitchen, and use your servers as detectives to figure out why no one is coming back for seconds.
  • Underperformers: These items rarely sell and are almost never ordered again. Dump them, and try something new.


2. Curate and cross-sell. Once you have a clear understanding of which dishes are most important to your business, turn a curatorial eye toward your menu. The most important items should be easy to find and have enticing pitches. Place complementary dishes adjacent to one another and consider cross-selling them through special prix-fixe offers.

The restaurant with the lobster bibs pitched $8 sides of lobster mac and cheese alongside the steamed lobster — a pairing called the "Fat & Skinny Dinner." Sure, the name is amusing, but it is also an effective way to upsell a pricey side dish that many guests wouldn’t have ordered otherwise.

3. Hire a professional. Even if you’re an expert when it comes to Adobe Photoshop and InDesign, it’s almost always better to bring in a professional who can effectively communicate your story through design.

To get the most out of your professional, share what you learned in your data dive. A strong designer will be able to take the information and create a menu that reflects your restaurant’s story while subtly but effectively highlighting the items you want to sell most.

4. Pay attention to menu production. Sure, that menu handwritten in calligraphy is beautiful, but what happens when you want to swap out a single item? Make sure you have a menu that’s easy to produce and change. Your designer should leave you with a template and design guidelines so you can make tweaks without sacrificing visual appeal.

If you want a high-end look without sacrificing the convenience and affordability of an easily edited menu, consider using menu enclosures. You can get gorgeous, handmade covers that will last for a long time and allow you to switch out the menu inside as often as necessary.

5. Test, test and test again. Once you have a basic design, try mixing up your menu using A/B testing: Change item placement or dish descriptions for a few days at a time and see what happens. Compare sales to see whether any changes bolster (or weaken) them. The key is to keep changes small. Test one thing at a time so that you truly know what drives improvements.

6. Create an internet-friendly version of your menu. So now you’ve got a gorgeous menu, and you want to put it on your website. Think twice before you upload it as a PDF. Your menu items are Google gold when it comes to attracting guests; your menu should be crawlable by search engines.

A simple text page that renders well on both a computer and a mobile device is key. That PDF you want to post? Google can’t read it. Save it for the in-person experience.

There are no objectively right or wrong answers when it comes to designing a menu — but there are right and wrong tactics when it comes to your restaurant. Rely on data and your own sensibilities, and get a professional who can put this data to work. By following these methods, you can ensure the menu you design is the perfect fit.

Topics: Marketing / Branding / Promotion, Menu Boards

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