The menu is at the heart of any restaurant. Without menu items, a restaurant is nothing more than an empty shell. You cannot begin to start your restaurant until you have conceptualized what your menu will be. You must develop a menu that will support your restaurant’s brand concept and satisfy your customers’ expectations.
The Importance of the Menu
The menu is a defining aspect of your restaurant. It is also your restaurant’s most influential marketing tool. It does not end there; the menu is connected to every other aspect of a foodservice operation. Your menu will influence the following:
Purchasing and Budgeting
When you start out, your menu will be the primary tool in helping you determine which foods you need to buy, the quantities you need on hand and the probable costs of goods sold (COGS).
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Choosing Equipment and Supplies
Along with the number of customers you will be serving, the menu is the main factor that will guide you in your choice of commercial kitchen equipment and supplies. For example, if you specialize in roasted and broiled meats, you will have special needs, like a heavy-duty broiler, a rotisserie oven and steak knives. If you serve a lot of breakfast foods, you will need a large griddle, an oven and syrup dispensers.
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Staffing and Training
Your menu will help you to determine who to hire as well as how to train them. If you choose your menu before your chef, you should make sure to hire a chef that has expertise cooking those items. If you choose a chef first, you should let the chef help you to develop the menu. The menu could also have an impact on what servers you hire. If you serve wine, for example, you may want to hire servers with knowledge of wine or sommelier training.
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You will use the items on your menu to help market your restaurant concept. Without your menu, you have nothing to promote. Once the menu is in place, you can begin working on your restaurant’s design strategy and marketing campaign.
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Choose a Menu Type and Menu Cycle
Before you decide what you will put on your menu, you need to determine what kind of menu you will be offering. The type of menu that you offer will be a key factor in characterizing your restaurant. Choose from the following menu types:
- A la carte menu. This is the most common menu used in both quick-service and full-service restaurants. In an á la carte menu, starters, main courses and desserts are all separately priced and ordered. Most á-la-carte type menus will still group a couple of food items together – for example, sides and entrees, like fries and burgers. However, appetizers, main courses and desserts are all sold individually, and often there is a separate “á la carte” category for “sides,” so customers can mix and match if they choose to. The drawback to an á la carte menu is that it makes orders unpredictable, which may drive up food and operational costs.
- Table d’hotemenu. A table d’hote menu is also known as a prix fixe (fixed price) menu or a set menu. A specific combination of courses – such as a starter, main course and dessert – has already been determined for a fixed price. You get what you see. Sometimes, there are two options in each category and the customer can mix and match to form the combination they like best. Other times, there are a few combinations offered so the customer can have a choice among the combinations. This is a common menu type for European-style fine dining restaurants. It is a good way to avoid high food costs and wasted money by limiting what people can order. However, it does not satisfactorily accommodate people whose tastes or diet requirements are particular or who want to order their meal with substitutions.
- Mixed menu. Most restaurants choose to offer a mixed menu, where some items are offered a la carte, while other menu items include a package. The typical example is the restaurant that offers salads included with all of their pasta entrees, or one that offers weekly specials or promotions on a full-course fixed price menu.
Once you have determined your menu type, it is time to choose the cycle of your menu. Try one of the following cycle types:
A static menu showcases the same menu items every day. There may be temporary additions to the menu in the form of daily, weekly or seasonal specials. However, for the most part, the menu remains static. The advantage to using a static menu is that, after a few months of operation, you will be able to predict the general trends in orders, allowing you to adjust your staffing and food purchasing accordingly. The downside to a static menu is that it is always the same, and customers may get bored with it. This is a good reason to include menu inserts with daily or weekly specials, alongside your static menu.
A menu that changes periodically is known as a “cycle menu.” The menu can change on a daily, weekly, monthly or even seasonal basis. You could offer a different menu for each day of the week, and start the cycle over again every seven days. Or, you could offer a different menu for fall, winter, summer and spring, and renew the cycle every year. This would allow you to take advantage of the freshest local seasonal meats and produce. However, offering a cycle menu has its disadvantages. Every time a new menu is introduced, staff needs to be retrained. Furthermore, orders become unpredictable when the cycle changes, so you have to prepare a detailed, accurate estimation of your new food costs and required inventories.
The type of menu you use will be incorporated into your restaurant’s brand. You can choose one menu type and stick with it, or you could mix and match. Many restaurants have found success with offering a combination of menu types to better serve their customers. For example, you could offer a static á la carte menu along with a daily table d’hote menu that cycles weekly.
Develop Your Menu Items
There are two ways to create menu items. You can create a menu that works off of traditional dishes, like eggs benedict, shrimp scampi and crème brûlée. Or you or your chef can develop your own unique menu items. Some factors to consider when creating your menu items:
- Operational type and concept. If you are running a quick-service or fast casual restaurant, you will need to think about speed when you develop your menu items. You also may want to consider whether the items can be pre-made and held in a warmer or refrigeration unit. Also consider your restaurant concept. The subtleties of your brand concept will be key in determining what should go on your menu. An Asian fusion restaurant will feature an entirely different menu than a sushi bar.
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- Chef’s expertise. In most cases, the restaurant’s head chef is the one who will develop the menu items. Whether they develop new, unique recipes or use traditional men items, chefs should be sure to create a menu that they are capable of executing well and efficiently. Matching your chef’s skills to the menu will result in tastier recipes. For example, if your chef specializes in seafood, do not ask him or her to create a fishless menu. Instead, take advantage of his or her existing knowledge.
- Budgeting and ingredient diversity. You will want to create a menu that will optimize your future food costs and your inventory quantities. For example, you may want to avoid creating a menu that features only one dish with fresh mangoes, unless you know for sure that that menu item will be popular. Since mangoes go bad quickly, if the dish is not popular enough, your inventory will go bad before it is used up. On the other hand, if you order fewer mangoes to compensate, you may run out too soon. By creating a menu where each ingredient is used in multiple dishes, you will reduce your food costs by buying in larger bulk, and you will lower the chances that your perishable inventory might go to waste.
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- Demographics and your target market. Develop menu items that your target market will enjoy. For example, if you are targeting seniors, do not offer strange or exotic dishes, because seniors are generally less willing to experiment with new taste combinations. If you are targeting eco-conscious diners, you will want to offer menu items that feature local seasonal ingredients.
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- What the competition is doing. Make sure that your menu is different from the competition. Do a little research by checking out nearby restaurants that have a similar concept. Perhaps you can one-up them. For example, if you run a salad establishment and you see that your competition only uses pre-grated cheese, consider offering fresh mozzarella salads to gain an edge. If your menu items do not differentiate you, then you better have a unique atmosphere and some killer service if you want to make it in the restaurant business.
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- What the owner likes and dislikes. This is usually the deciding factor in determining a restaurant’s menu items. However, it should never override other factors, such as the preferences of your target market or your chef’s culinary abilities. For example, if the owner of a burger joint does not like tomatoes, this is no reason to keep them off the menu entirely, since many customers will expect that option on their burger.
Before choosing your final menu items, you might want to test how your target market will react to them by putting on a taste-test. Invite people from the neighborhood to help you develop your menu and get some free food, while they are at it.
Price Your Menu Items
To a certain extent, the way you price your menu items is a game of trial and error. If you price a menu item too high and it may be hard to sell and conversely if a menu item is priced too low it may be perceived as having a lower value. Take into account the following when you price your dishes:
- The average income of your target market
- Direct costs such as food costs (which will fluctuate)
- Indirect costs such as labor and rent
- Your competitions pricing
- The level of service you offer
The key to good menu pricing is to find the balance between affordability and profitability. If you price your menu items wisely, you will maximize your profit margins.
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Write and Design Your Menu
Your menu is your number one marketing tool. A well-designed menu will incorporate your brand’s designs and highlight your restaurant’s most profitable items. This will subtly influence customers to develop brand loyalty and order dishes with high margins. When designing your menu, follow these tips:
- Keep menu space clean and avoid overcrowding
- Arrange menu items strategically
- Include inserts for special offers
- Use quality graphics and photos
In addition to the menu design, the written copy and descriptions in your menu will introduce your restaurant and your food items to the customer. A well-written menu will help guide customers in their ordering. A well-designed menu is also a tool to create a customer’s positive anticipation for a delicious meal. When writing your menu, be sure to use descriptive, vivid wording, and always proof read it for spelling and grammar before printing.
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