How to design a restaurant menu

Purchase and Selection 1. Menu Design

In Customer Life Cycle, Marketing by Freddie FramptonLeave a Comment

Menu Engineering

It is not enough to have excellent food for a menu to be right. It is also important that a menu should satisfy consumers psychologically at an optimal level and that it makes them willing to spend more on the food you are providing.  It takes about 109 seconds* on average for a customer to go through a menu.  This means you have limited time to communicate with your customers. Menu psychology assists you to transform your menu from a mere list of foods to a chart of concealed directions that guide customers to the ultimate food which leads to greater profits. Do not confuse this for witchcraft or deceit.  The efficacy of suggestions is utilized to exploit the subliminal as a strategy of maximizing results and pushing sales volumes.

Menu engineering and psychology is a career filed for many people and cannot be exhausted in this article, this is just a crash course.

Types of Items

Menus can be categorised into four. This classification is dependent on profitability and popularity.

Stars: These are menu items which give you the advantage of both increased profitability and enhanced popularity. You should emphasize on these items because consumers are pleased with them and this results in more income.

Workhorse: Such items are highly popular but less profitable. Place such items at the periphery of the menu since they don’t impact your income positively even if they are liked by your customers.

Dogs: These items are not preferred by most clients and are also not profitable. Consider whether they need to be in the menu in the first place or whether you should reintroduce them.

Puzzles: These items are not liked by many customers but they are highly profitable. Ensure you use some of the tips we will give you to strategize and create more profits.

The fundamental issue is that you build on stars; reduce workhorses (these are distinct from miniature horses, which also result in increased patronage) or find methods of increasing their profitability while preserving their attractiveness; place puzzles in strategic positions in order to boost sales and evaluate the necessity of dogs. This act of classification assists you to establish the best strategy for a specific dish towards achieving optimum results.

Menu marketing classification chart

Menu Classification Chart. Popularity vs Profit

Identifying the Sweet Spot

The trick lies in identifying the sweet spot which is the area in which you locate items which are of high margin.  To arrive at the sweet spot, a number of things are considered including ‘Serial Position Effect’.

It is now time to learn a number of special psychology vocabularies. This should not scare you, though, because these terms are easy to grasp. Serial Position Effect is a reference to the manner in which humans recollect issues. The two ways in which humans remember are Recency Effect as well as Primary Effect.

To understand these concepts, we will engage in an exercise involving thinking. Suppose that you are shopping for groceries and your list contains 10 items.  However, the list is memorized and not written. What method do you use to ensure you do not forget any of the items? Although different people utilize varying strategies to remember the items, most of us resort to repeating the items several times in our brains.  In psychology, this implies you are using primary as well as recency effects. If the items which linger in your mind most are those which are on top of the list, it means you have repeated them so many times that they have transited from your transient recollection to the permanent one. This is called primary effect. On the other hand, you can experience the reverse of the primary effect which is the recency effect. In this case, your memory grasps more of the items which were at the tail end of your list since thy are still lingering in your mind and are dominant in your transient recollection. The implication for menus is that the items which give you greatest value should be located either at the beginning (primacy) or at the tail end (recency) because this is the sweet pot or where the eyes of customers look first and last.

Restaurant Menu Marketing

Where to place the menu items you wish to sell most

Eye Scanning

Research has varying findings on the approaches used by customers to scan a menu. However, it is agreed that when a menu has two panels, customers first scan the topmost right and from there either go anticlockwise or in a zigzag manner.

Note: The National Restaurant Association commissioned a research which Gallup conducted and which came up with conflicting findings. It was found out the consumers scan menus from the left side then proceed down and right as they would with a book.

Moreover, it is crucial to have colours, pictures, boxes and bold items because these features attract the eye. Have such items where you want the customers to concentrate on (like the corner on the top right hand) but ensure these features are not cluttered.

Today, technology allows the use of menu boards and digital menus thus changing the scenario. Consequently, we can repeat menus and alter them depending on need and analytics. You can adopt a menu which transforms itself depending on the customer’s gaze. For example, the menu and POS can be intertwined automatically to ensure your stars, puzzles, dogs and workhorses are updated based on the layout. You may also design a menu in an interactive manner to query wether the the consumer wants a certain item, if their eyes linger on it for a longer time or if they need any assistance or hint. Think about a menu that pops up the image of a cold beverage for a client in hot weather. There are many ways of driving sales through menus if one is imaginative and creative with digital media.

Eye scanning of a restaurant menu

Eye scanning of a restaurant menu

Perceived Price

Menus are not just about good food but about maximizing on the psychological behaviour of consumers to drive sales. In the following section I will look at price and realize that, unlike what economists tell us, price is about value and not just low or high prices.

Item Pricing

The concept of prices is not very attractive to people. Your menu should dissuade consumers from price and have them focus on the experience instead. This will ensure they concentrate on the food and even pay a little more as opposed to being tight-fisted and price-oriented.

Consider the following price displays:

  • 15
  • Fifteen dollars
  • $15

It is possible to see no difference between the items listed above. However, there are many differences. Actually, they are all different.  A few psychological terms will be used here but they will not be hard. Priming refers to situation where you are exposed to a specific stimulus and this makes you react in a specific way to a consequent stimulus.  This is similar to the famous Pavlov’s Dogs. Generally, consumers hate to pay. Every time we open our wallets to pay, our stomachs feel knotty.  For this reason, we strive to ensure we are saved from this bad feeling. Triggers are the stimuli which bring about these primal instincts. For example, a trigger could be the dollar sign, words which mention any form of money or similar terminology.  It is therefore important that your menu should shift attention away from the idea of payment. For example, when you put the dollar sign before 15 you subconsciously trigger the feeling that you are about to get into the consumers wallet. This makes the consumer uncomfortable, just as it happens when you use the word ‘dollar’. In contrast, if you simply indicate the price as 15 you trigger the consumer to discard the primed impression of payment. This explains why in a study carried out by the Centre for Hospitality Research at Cornell University, it was found out that when the money sign was not included in a price, consumers bought 8% more.  Obviously, this is significant and easy.

Related to this concept is the need to discard the dots which are used to link the food item and the price in the menu. This is tantamount to encircling the prices in red and pleading with consumers to fearfully hold on to their wallets.

Another important consideration is how the prices end. When a price culminates in .00 it is suggestive of quality while an ending of .99 denotes value. Ensure all prices on the menu are in tandem with the restaurant’s branding.

Comparative Pricing

Human beings are by nature indecisive and arrive at decisions based on comparison irrespective of how major or minor the decision is. This explains why you are likely to tag along your not-so-attractive friend with you when you visit a bar with the intention of meeting someone else. This implies that you consider yourself more attractive compared to your friend and you derive some satisfaction from this without necessarily making you feel guilty. This thinking pervades almost everything in our lives without leaving out how we order food. To elaborate on this, we will extend the example and consider anchoring and extremeness aversion. Apart from utilizing comparisons in decision-making, we prefer to derive comparisons from extreme situations. We detest having to be the cheapskate and ordering the most inexpensive menu item. Similarly, many avoid selecting the most costly item so as not to appear brash. The alternative is the middle ground, especially the item which appears directly under the most costly one. The other related concept is anchoring. Did you know that the costliest menu item is not meant for you to purchase? The idea is to make you feel that the surrounding items are not that expensive; that they are reasonably placed and thus affordable for you. As an entrepreneur, this is your anchor. It hooks in your consumers to discover less costly items which bring you a lot of profits because these are the items you actually want them to purchase.

Marketing your restaurant menu

Menu engineering with a decoy

Menu Descriptions

Homemade Italian Mac & Cheese vs. BK Whopper with Cheese

It is possible that you have come across this in the past. A specific food item is placed solitarily while another is glorified with copious adjectives. For example, food may be said to be nostalgic (homemade), geographical (Italian), sensory (cheesy) or it may have a brand name.  If consumers base their decisions on comparison, the puffed up item will experience 27% more sales than the isolated item. Consumers also understand when the restaurant and dish increase in value and quality. This is encouraging coming from a customer. However, it is not easy to utilize the descriptors. Ensure you do not overuse descriptors. Reduce them if you realize you have overdone this part. Descriptors can also help when unfamiliar terms, when those of a foreign language, are used. This is because of priming which as we saw previously implies that we can understand what “cheesy” and “homemade” means. Since we have our prejudices and biases, we already have some notion about the dish in the menu. Make sure you exploit the primed terms as much as possible. This is the best way to ensure your dish is invested with value in the eye of the consumer.

Menu Design for Restaurants

How to design your restaurant menu

About the Author

Freddie Frampton


A progressive and operational, British National, strategist and trusted consultant with a rich mix of Business Development & Marketing experience spanning over 20 years of international work experience (Middle East and Europe) as a leading business professional in the hospitality industry.

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