2009 July: Main Menu

2009 July: Main MenuAt any restaurant, the quality of the food served is the most important factor in a customer’s happiness. But it’s not the only thing that matters. Consciously or not, customers are forming an opinion about their dining experience from the moment they enter your establishment.

“Consumers can go anywhere to eat, but they’ll pay a premium to eat at a restaurant that provides an enjoyable experience,” says Ken Peters, founder and creative director of Scottsdale, Arizona-based Nocturnal Design, which specializes in graphic design for the restaurant and hospitality industry. “A successful restaurant brand interacts with consumers at every level, giving form, function and character to your branded experience. And with a restaurant, the menu is at the center of the customer experience.”

That’s right, the menu. If you haven’t taken a critical look at the main vehicle you use to present your food to patrons, it’s time to pull out your menu and think about what you’re saying to your customers.

First, start with the basics. Your menu is the only interaction your customers have with your restaurant between the time they walk in and when they place their order. And it’s the best time to really introduce your “brand” to the patron, says Derald Schultz, principal at Mediarail Design in Dacula, Georgia. “Branding is a promise a business makes to a consumer, a shortcut to help them make a choice,” he explains. “In the case of a restaurant, the level of service and the food they offer are the core areas to convey that promise, and the menu is part of a restaurant’s brand.” Finding the right ways to “brand” yourself should be the starting point for menu design. When Andrew Freeman, President of Andrew Freeman & Co. Hospitality and Restaurant Consultants in San Francisco, is working with a client on a menu design, the first question he likes to ask is what they want the menu to “say” about their restaurant. “The restaurant’s concept will determine how the menu looks and feels,” he explains, adding that a casual restaurant shouldn’t have a menu with overly formal presentation or vice-versa.

Next, get organized. A common mistake menu designers and restaurant consultants say they often have to correct is wasted use of valuable menu space. If your specialty is brickoven fired dishes, don’t devote a lot of valuable “real estate” on the menu to American dishes, says Schultz. “Patrons typically go directly to the entree section first and look for house specials and highlighted items,” he explains. “On a standard two-panel menu, their eyes will start in the upper-right and work their way down.” The center spot is another great area for highlighting your signature items, says Ed Engeron, president and CEO of Perspectives/The Consulting Group, which specializes in hospitality and restaurant consulting. You can also use subtle tricks to draw your patron’s eye to the most profitable plates. “It’s always nice to box it in, use some color,” he says. “If it’s appropriate for the concept, a really great picture of what the item actually looks like on the plate is nice, but make sure it’s what it will really look like, not a beauty shot, so there’s not this feeling of disappointment when they see the real dish.”

Now it’s time to question what’s on the menu. On its face, this seems like a simple enough task: the food you can order is what you put on the menu. But once you begin designing the menu presentation, it becomes much more complicated.

Balancing exactly how much you tell your patrons about what is in each dish is one of the menu-design challenges you’ll have to navigate. On the one hand, you don’t want to tell them too much about each dish. “Patrons do not need to know every ingredient of a meal, unless they can potentially cause an allergic reaction, nor the name of the farm they came from,” he says. “Too much information can have negative repercussions, spoiling a perfectly good dish or meal.”

On the other hand, using descriptive words that strike a chord with customers can make a dish sound more appealing. “Writing good copy and explaining to people what’s going into a particular item is very important,” says Engeron. He agrees that if a dish has potential allergens, or if it’s particularly spicy, that needs to be clearly stated. But he says for many concepts, using descriptive words that play into your restaurant’s theme can be a plus. “Instead of just saying ‘salt,’ you can say ‘sea salt,’ or even ‘Baltic sea salt’ or ‘blue Baltic sea salt,” he says. “It’s nice to bring adjectives in as long as you keep it so it’s fairly readable.”

Engeron calls this “stealing equity.” If you can pull in a well-known or highly valued brand-name or adjective, you’re adding value to your dish. He explains that in the chocolate company he owns, they offer Champagne truffles. “But it’s not just any Champagne truffle: it’s a Dom Perignon Champagne truffle,” he says. “So, if you can ‘steal equity’ and use words like that as you write your menu, it will enhance the guest experience and lead people to the items you really want to sell.”

More than anything, your menu needs to be a tangible representation of your restaurant’s personality and concept. And when you focus on the details in your menu, you can boost your bottom line. “The menu is the most important sales tool a restaurant has,” Freeman says. “The menu design extends the brand and the concept of the restaurant. Strategic menu organization can drive sales of the dishes a restaurateur can make the most profit on.” ?

Four Other Mistakes To Avoid During a Menu Redesign

  • Outsourcing to the menu provider. “This is like leaving the choice of the wall paint up to the painter,” says Roberto Sablayrolles, of the Washington, D.C.-based branding fi rm Tasty Concepts. Leaving the menu design up to the provider means you’ll get what’s easiest and most profi table for him, not what works for you.
  • Plastic –– not fantastic. Too many casual restaurants have a “cafelike menu,” Sablayrolles says, where they just drop lists of food items into plastic pockets. “The material the menu is made from speaks loudly about the restaurant and its style,” he says, adding paper menus are gaining in popularity, and you can send a message by adding textures, or background colors to make your menu more memorable.
  • Tiny text. Your customers shouldn’t need a magnifying glass to read your menu, says Kechia Ley, vicepresident of creative services at Andrew Freeman & Co. “Small fonts are a consistent error I’ve seen on menus. Guests should be able to read the menu easily without having to strain their eyes.”
  • Cutting corners. Hiring a designer or consultant to work on your menu may cost a bit more, but menus are so central to the restaurant experience, going pro can pay off.

Alyson McNutt English is an award-winning freelance writer specializing in home, health, family, and green topics. She is based in Huntsville, Alabama.