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21. December 2022, 7 min read

How to craft a more profitable restaurant menu

Author: Birgitte Brøndum
Smiling woman in white, floral dress looking at a restaurant menu
A smiling woman looking at a restaurant menu.

Your menu is often what gives new guests their first impression of your restaurant. A restaurant menu is much more than just a list of mouth-watering dishes and drinks. Did you know that there are a ton of ways you can use the menu to boost your restaurant’s profit? In this article, we’ll explore how!

Maybe you’ve heard the term menu engineering? It’s a process that can be used to create a more profitable restaurant menu. To do this, a restaurant needs to figure out which menu items are the most popular and profitable. Once this has been established, the goal is to design the menu in a way that nudges more guests to choose the profitable items. Naturally, the menu also has to be appetising and appeal to guests on more than one level.

Another important aspect to consider when creating a profitable restaurant menu is menu psychology. This entails things like strategically considering where to place popular menu items, which words to use in food descriptions and boosting sales with your sharpest food pics.

Below, we’ll go through some of the most important steps of menu engineering and menu psychology.

1: What does the thyme in that tomato soup cost?

According to menu engineer Gregg Rapp, the first and most important step of menu engineering is to figure out what every single ingredient in each of your dishes costs. This is often referred to as “costing a menu”.

It can be tempting to skip this step, but if you want to create a profitable restaurant menu there’s no way around it. The costs of your dishes will guide you in the right direction when you’re putting together your menu. It takes some time, but it’s time well spent. Make some good coffee and start crunching those numbers!

2: Create categories for your restaurant menu

A good and profitable restaurant menu should have categories. But which categories? It’s up to you to decide which categories make sense for your restaurant’s concept and range of dishes. What’s important is that the menu items only appear in one of your categories.

Some common restaurant menu categories are:

Your menu categories should then be divided into smaller sections. For instance, the entree category might include vegan entrees, vegetarian entrees, seafood entrees and meat entrees. Naturally, these sections can be created in different ways. Your best approach will be to do it in a way you feel matches your concept and the dishes you offer.

A stone-oven pizza is taken out of the oven on a peel.
Photo: Eneida Nieves

3: Which of your menu items are most popular?

In this step, you need to pinpoint your most popular menu items. You can do this by looking at data from the previous month. Are you already tracking data from restaurant analytics? Great, because that makes this step a lot easier.

Try if you can find a way to logically divide your menu items into sections similar to these:

Once you have your menu items lined up in this way you’ll be able to choose the best placements for them in your menu sections.

Profitable and popular dishes

Dishes from entry 1 in your list should be highlighted, promoted and visible in your menu!

The not-too-profitable but popular dishes

Have a look at your menu items from list entry 2. According to Gregg Rapp, you’ll often discover that your salads and soups are in this category. Can you find a way to make them more profitable? Perhaps you can exchange a few of their most expensive ingredients for cheaper, but equally tasty ones.

Profitable but not very popular dishes

Consider the dishes you’ve placed on list entry 3. Try to figure out why they’re not selling that well. You can ask your servers to throw a good word in for them. Additionally, you should pay attention to if guests who order them leave too many leftovers. Lowering the price might help increase profit on these items. Nevertheless, if they remain less popular it’s worth updating them or replacing them with alternative dishes.

Neither profitable nor popular menu items

Finally, your entry 4 dishes: Gregg Rapp explains that while removing these items from the menu entirely is one solution, it’s not always a good idea to simply exclude them all. He uses a grilled cheese sandwich as an example here. Although the sandwich isn’t popular, broadly speaking, it might still be the most loved choice among a smaller group of guests. Do a bit of research, remove dishes that end up as food waste and keep the dishes that some guests still seem to love.

As we will see further on in the menu-engineering process, the order in which dishes appear on your menu, how your menu looks visually and a bunch of other factors also play a role when it comes to popularity.

4. The design of a profitable menu

Some years back, a Gallup poll showed that the majority of guests spend around 109 seconds reading a restaurant menu. This is the time you have to nudge them to choose your most profitable menu items. When you design your menu, keep these 109 seconds in mind at all times.

Your most important goal when designing a menu is to highlight the dishes you want to be profitable bestsellers.

In order to find the best design approach, you’ll need to consider your target audience: What do the students from the university around the corner order? What about other age groups? And which part of your menu and concept attracts guests, to begin with? Do you have a signature dish, a Michelin Star, the cheapest cocktails and/or a cosy atmosphere with eclectic decor?

Your menu design should feel like a natural extension of your concept and even match your interior, while also working its magic for you when it comes to profit. It can be a tricky balance to find, but if you follow best practices and proven design techniques you’re off to a good start.

Effective visual cues

When it comes to highlighting the dishes you want guests to order, you can use graphic elements to achieve this. One option is to place a box around the item on the menu page. You can also place an image or illustration next to it.

Illustration of suggested menu design for a more profitable restaurant menu
Illustration: DinnerBooking

When you decide to highlight menu items with visual cues, such as the white box in the illustration above, it’s important to make sure that your menu has enough space for it. This is especially important if you highlight more than one item. The effect of the visual cues is reduced if the menu ends up looking cluttered.

As a rule of thumb, the effect is best if you stick to one of these visual cues per menu category.

Menu photos can boost sales for some restaurants

According to Gregg Rapp, you can also boost sales of certain dishes by up to 30% by adding a single image on the menu page. Since a combination of both an image and a graphic visual cue, like our white box above, can also make the menu look cluttered, it’s best to choose one of these options.

Keep in mind that a menu with photos might not match your concept if you have a fine-dining restaurant. Do you offer burgers and draft beer? Then a mouth-watering burger photo might be worth considering!

5. But where do the prices go?

Do you have the prices of all menu items in a column next to the items? According to Gregg Rapp, this isn’t the best approach. You want to make guests forget about money and let their appetite drive them instead.

He suggests placing the price two spaces after the description of each dish. Additionally, he explains that it’s a good idea to keep the prices in the same font and style as the rest of the item description. Currency signs and codes are also a no-no because they lead the guests’ thoughts towards money instead of food.

Two women holding restaurant menus while looking at a smiling waiter taking their orders.
Photo: Canva

6. Use menu descriptions strategically

The way you describe your dishes also plays a significant role when it comes to creating a more profitable menu.

Your most important menu items should have the most detailed descriptions. This step might be less relevant for you if a minimalistic menu is better suited for your concept. But don’t forget that servers can complement your menu with a detailed and knowledgeable verbal description when they interact with guests.

If there’s room for a more detailed description on your menu, you can use this to your advantage.

Add more detail than just the ingredients such as where the inspiration for the dish came from, where that special forest herb was picked, a specific technique used to prepare it, or that the dish is your head chef’s personal favourite. Details that tell a micro-story will make guests feel they’re getting something more than simply a dish from a menu. Instead, they’re getting a dish that’s unique to your restaurant, and very often this will elevate the appeal of the dish.

The best item order for your profitable menu

Glancing back at the menu categories and sections we talked about earlier, we also have to dive into the order of your items.

If you’ve placed six items in a vertical list, guests will focus more on the first few of them, and then their eyes will move to the least. The items in the middle get the least attention.

Aim for lists with between four and seven items. More than seven is too much information to keep the guest’s focus. A guest that loses focus because of a cluttered menu often ends up ordering the most familiar item, and that’s not always the most profitable one.

Shorter menu lists help guests notice the items you want them to order. That means happier guests that can make a fast choice and get on with their conversation. And most importantly, it means a better chance that your menu can help increase your restaurant’s profit.

As we’ve seen, the way to a more profitable restaurant menu will vary from restaurant to restaurant. The tips we’ve gathered for you here are meant to point you in the right direction but there’s no one-suits-all solution. Nevertheless, these steps are tried and tested to be effective for a wide range of restaurant concepts. Have a look at your menu today. Perhaps it’s ready for a good dose of menu-engineering magic!

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