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A Menu is the Single-Most Important Piece of Collateral a Restaurant Has


For restaurants, a menu is more than a list of entrées, appetizers, and desserts — it’s the company’s product list and, as such, should serve as its best-performing salesperson.


Every restaurant company – from small shops to well-established and multi-national restaurant chains – have pains with rising costs, consistency, profitability, and the need to differentiate their offerings.


In large systems, just a few ounces or minutes of waste in a preparation method can lead to tens of millions of dollars in lost profits when extrapolated across the entire system.


Shoddy and anemic analysis – when it comes to menu design – can shave millions in profits (unnecessarily).


Further considerations regarding menu design include:

  • How might food costs be affected by menu changes?


  • How will guests psychologically interpret the information included on a menu? How will the design of the menu affect their purchasing behaviors?


  • Has the architecture of the menu been taken into account? Are merchandising techniques being used to deliberately tap into human biology (i.e. ensure guests’ attention is drawn to items in the way it should be)? Are they overused?


  • As consumers look for foods higher in nutritional quality, does the menu communicate a sense of place and sense of season?

  • Does the menu work within the confines of the lighting and ambiance in the locations themselves? In other words, does it make sense that a restaurant featuring a dark environment also has a menu with small, fine print?

  • Does the menu properly highlight signature items or the company’s signature culinary point-of-view?

  • Does the menu take into account the emergence of new diets, styles of eating, or food allergies?

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Insufficient Approaches are Still Employed by Many Restaurants and Cafes


Current (even antiquated) approaches are still employed by many restaurants, contributing to further suffering in an industry in which once-major players are already ailing.


Even in multi-billion-dollar companies, there will be a well-meaning junior analyst sitting in a cubicle cluttered with competitor menus, punching away in Excel spreadsheets to determine what everyone else is selling and how much they’re charging for it.


Outside the carpeted walls of their cube, however, there are several other areas of a restaurant company (all, in fact) that will be affected by menu changes.

Sending a new menu up the chain to be approved by those in a board room often means only the most bland, consensus-dulled changes will make it through.


And the crowded togetherness that often comes in that corporate vacuum can lead to a loss of the company’s magic, with analysts so closely watching the competition (and therefore straying from their own brand) that they do little to stick out from the sea of 2-for-$20 menu items so rampant in the industry.


Specialized Advisory can Move Beyond Incremental Changes


Firms that utilize new (more advanced) analytics and a holistic approach can ensure the proper analysis required of a new menu undertaking.


An agency that specializes in visual design won’t necessarily understand things like consumer trends, or what makes a drive-thru work (as much more goes into such an important initiative than simply placing items on three menu panels).


A thorough menu engineering and merchandizing strategy engagement will require many weeks of work and energy.


If your restaurant is applying less resources than this, you may be leaving significant value trapped in an

under-performing menu.

The design is important, but it requires having the proper bones, structure, and strategy in place first. And it’s an investment that pays off.


Tremendous things, from revenue bumps to differentiation, earned media, and improved morale, can all be effectuated through the right menu.


The Importance of Analysis when Launching a New Menu


If your brand were to speak, how would it walk, talk, act, dress, and behave? Is it playful? Is it serious?


The menu should convey that positioning, purpose, and promise.


Today’s restaurants face stiff competition, yet many suffer from the same problems — their menus aren’t distinct enough, they don’t mirror the brand’s personality, and they’re too long.

We conducted a study of Casual Dining Restaurant menus, and found that many now exceed 4,000 words.


With the average person reading about 200 words per minute, it would take them 15+ minutes to read — and that’s if they were solely concentrating on reading the menu.


For such reasons, field observations are also important and can enable greater understanding of how a menu is perceived through the lens of the guest and used in the operation.


Just as it’s cumbersome to force on the guest too many menu items, its equally cumbersome to be faced with too many syllables (which is often the case when ordering a half-caf, extra-hot, triple-shot White Chocolate Mocha, for instance).


Those extra ten syllables to order what is essentially a “number five” could be slowing down the counter and translating to thousands of dollars lost.

With so many moving parts, having the confidence that a new menu will resonate with the guest, the market, and play off the brand’s promise will ultimately help differentiate a restaurant and ensure it can remain relevant.


Focusing on just a few key signature items, for instance, can boost revenues for under-performing brands and further propel growth-minded restaurants and cafes.


A lot of discipline is required to get all this right and, to be fair, it’s a significant undertaking. But when done right, it’s more than worth it. Increasingly, this marriage of art and science is what’s required to maintain the level of competitiveness today.


Menu Simplification: It’s Working

It’s time to free the guest from the tyranny of too many choices.


Humans have a remarkable ability to

over-complicate. And this has certainly been true in recent years for restaurants and cafes that lacked the discipline to prune and manicure their menu strategy. 


Much like the sense of surprise and panic of looking at the bathroom scale late in the holiday season and feeling startled enough to get back into the gym and cut a few pounds, marketers — and those responsible for menu rollouts — are realizing they need to drop some weight.

Many clients have asked us for help with menu engineering, and we’ve noticed a few common stumbling blocks.


Promotional items and limited-time offers get confused with product development, leading to lower-priced — and lower-impact — menus.


Redesign efforts are often assigned to those who lack the experience to take a holistic approach to menu development and make the necessary decisions.


To combat these, we suggest:

  • Aligning the menu with consumer trends to create innovative signature items


  • Devoting research and development efforts to the culinary program, which will be repaid as the new menu creates improvements across functional areas


Elevating redesign efforts so that menu engineering becomes part of the chain’s long-term strategic planning


Pricing Tactics Masquerading as Innovations


With all the noise and fervor around innovation, it is interesting to note that much of what is happening on menus has more to do with promotions and pricing strategy than it does with R&D, differentiated product development, and meaningful improvements in the areas of speed of service, order accuracy, guest convenience, and operational efficiency. 

As restaurants struggle with shrinking sales, they often face pressure to cut costs, which include menu development.

This sometimes means relying on large distributors for help with menu development, resulting in lots of brands suddenly offering very similar options.

We need only look at the sad state of casual-dining restaurants to see the consequences of this mistake.

Rather than find new approaches to menus that would delight guests and align with a brand’s unique promise, personality, and positioning, these restaurants drifted into the sea of same.


Their menus all started looking like copies of each other’s, and most began running variations on a 2-for-$20 deal.


Not only did they fail to offer guests anything that differentiated them from the competition, but the price-slashing made them seem cheap.


Trying to compete with lower-priced QSRs was a strategic error.


Innovating exciting signature items would have had the opposite effect, helping them stand out from other concepts both within and outside their category.


The menu is a key part of the experience of dining out, and innovation can help refresh your brand.


Labor Challenges Must Also be Met with Improved Menu Strategy


In the past few years, restaurants had price inflation 3x that of grocery stores.


With labor costs increasing greatly in 2024 — and competitive pressures continuing to build — getting it right with the menu will be very important.


Labor will not only become more expensive though; in some key markets the labor pool is really a labor puddle, making it especially difficult to fill positions that require skilled crews.


Improvements should happen through the lens of product development, profit center growth opportunities, pricing strategies, labor optimization strategies, enhancements to the guest experience and to operational systems to increase speed of service and order accuracy and reduce complexity.

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Menu Strategy Must Be Holistic


One of the surest and quickest means to improving performance for a restaurant is through effective menu engineering strategies.


It’s about more than tactical design, merchandizing techniques, promotional tactics and pricing strategies though.


When done correctly, a holistic improvement is possible that also delivers benefits in terms of

  • Operational efficiency

  • Brand and competitive differentiation

  • Media interest that garners positive publicity

  • Guest appeal that stimulates new trial and frequency

  • Sustainable lifts to sales and profitability

  • Reinvigorated morale and employee engagement

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Chef’s Kitchens works alongside owners and chefs

of the nation’s leading restaurants to help identify, size, and seize opportunities to drive growth, optimize performance, and enhance enterprise value.


Our clients span 14 States and 8+ major metropolitan areas, including Boston, NYC, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Atlanta, collectively posting more than $100MM in revenue.


Across hundreds of engagements, we’ve worked in nearly every category, cuisine, segment, operating model, ownership type, and phase of the business lifecycle.

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