The Art & Science of Menu Design

menusWhen the commodities markets spiked in 2010, squeezing the margins of pizzeria outlets across the country, Joey Buona’s crafted a proactive response: the Milwaukee-based eatery redesigned its menu with an eye on profitability, as well as style.

“We certainly wanted a menu that looked nice and was well organized, but we were most concerned about driving our customers to our most profitable items,” says Buona Companies Managing Director Jeff Whiteman.

Created with the help of a menu engineering company, Joey Buona’s organized a six-page menu that featured rich colors, professional food photography and call-out boxes spotlighting upsell opportunities and high-margin items. The redesigned menu translated into real results: lunch and dinner check averages jumped 15 percent as Joey Buona’s powered through the commodities’ upheaval.

“The menu is a communication tool with guests and when you choose to maximize its potential, you’re going to see better results,” Whiteman says.

Blending the artistic qualities of graphic design with principles borrowed from psychology, marketing and mathematics, a well-designed menu is a powerful sales tool capable of building a restaurant’s brand identity, communicating pride of ownership, inspiring guest confidence and boosting the bottom line. “A menu is more than ink on paper; it’s an integral part of the guest’s experience at the table,” says Phyllis Weege, owner of Menu Masters, a Wisconsin-based company that offers menu engineering services.

Rather than hustling to tactical decisions about colors or fonts, many industry insiders agree that the science of menu design remains the most important component, specifically understanding demographics, competition and, above all, profitability.

“Analysis is the critical first step. Know your sales, costs and margins, and your customers,” says Sybil Yang, a hospitality professor at San Francisco State University and a leading researcher in the role menu design plays in guest decision-making.

As fun as the creative side can be, it’s the analytical foundation that ultimately breeds success.
“The menu is among the first things an entrepreneur dreams up, but among the last things put into place,” Yang says. “That’s unfortunate because thoughtful design can produce a lot of extra gravy.”

Here are four winning steps to high-impact menu design:

  • Highlight key items. Yang compares menu design to a chess match that challenges operators to put their strongest pieces up front. Devote the menu’s prime real estate as well as boxing and coloring components to the items that drive restaurant performance.On Joey Buona’s menu, for instance, leadership wanted to highlight its multi-course, family-style offerings that charge a per person price. Crafted with food costs in mind, these profitable package deals consume a single page complemented by professional photography and bold fonts.“Now, this offering pops out visually right when someone opens our menu,” Whiteman says, adding that server training and the revised menu have combined to increase family-style orders.
  • Accuracy and organization. A menu failing to share current and accurate information such as pricing and product availability takes money away from the operation and weakens the likelihood of return business. While pleasing aesthetic design has definite value, the functionality of presenting items in an intuitive manner, such as placing appetizers, entrées and desserts in defined categories, trumps fashion.“Good design allows guests to find what they want to find or what you want them to find,” Yang says, further advising operators to utilize white space to produce a clean, uncluttered look.
  • The question of imagery. While a tech-savvy amateur might be able to grab shots and use Photoshop to produce suitable imagery, Weege calls professional food photography “the best option.”“Whenever possible, it’s best to have a professional food photographer shoot your dishes plated just as the guest will see them,” she says, adding that quality photos of plated items provide guests a clear, compelling expectation.In lieu of a plated presentation, operators can secure stock imagery of the fresh ingredients it uses to make a pie. Showing photos of ripe tomatoes and peppers, Weege says, reinforces the pizzeria’s use of quality ingredients.
  • The small stuff. The small details can make a large impact.In one of her first research projects, Yang investigated the presentation of price on menus and, at her test restaurant, saw an eight-percent uptick in sales when the dollar sign was removed.

“The less you remind people of price, the better,” Yang says, noting that, conversely, bold dollar signs can actually be effective for the pizzeria championing price as its competitive edge.

2009 July: Main MenuWeege, meanwhile, likes to avoid leader lines, the dots that direct diners to an item’s price. Instead, she prefers to tuck the price of an item at the end of a description so cost is the last thing a guest sees.

With font, Yang says serif typefaces such as the popular Times New Roman create a baseline easy for the eye to follow and are best used in text-heavy descriptions. In contrast, sans serif typefaces like Arial and Impact function best as attention grabbers.

Boxing and color, two great tools in the designer’s arsenal, can then draw guests’ eyes to house specialties and profitable items, but should be limited to one to two items within a given section. Weege suggests using colors that are readable and match the restaurant’s color scheme — the primary colors, for instance, often work best in a family friendly establishment over an upscale eatery.

How often should a restaurant redesign its menu?
Most restaurants regularly update their menus in small ways — adjusting prices or deleting outdated dishes — but deciding when to invest in a significant menu redesign often depends on factors such as the competitive environment and the restaurant’s marketplace positioning.
“If more contemporary restaurants have opened up locally or the area’s demographics are shifting, then that might compel a restaurant to be more aggressive in a redesign,” Menu Masters Phyllis Weege says.

Weege, for example, has one client who redesigns every two to three years, largely an effort to show the restaurant as an ever-evolving eatery; another client, meanwhile, is currently doing his first redesign in eight years.

“The menu is your brand identity,” Weege says. “When you know who you want to be, you’ll have a better handle on when it’s time for a change.”

Chicago-based writer Daniel P. Smith has covered business issues and best practices for a variety of trade publications, newspapers, and magazines.

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