How to Design a Restaurant Menu

Jul 14, 2021

This article is brought to you by Chef Works, we hope you find this information relevant & useful.

Designing your restaurant’s menu can be intimidating, and rightly so. To succeed requires a vast reserve of knowledge, research, expertise, hard work, and the ability to risk. It has the potential to help make or break restaurants and reputations.

Like most other responsibilities in restaurant life, it’s really not a job for the faint of heart.
Still, there’s no reason it can’t be exciting and fun at the same time. You’re making your dreams a reality and sharing them with the world, partnering with co-workers and clientele to roll the dice on a grand adventure.

And… You’re not alone. Thousands upon thousands of restaurants have found great success, and a significant portion of that success can be attributed to a well-designed, well-thought-out menu.
If they can do it, you can do it.

Here are six of our favourite tips to get you started.

ONE: DETERMINE YOUR BRAND

  • What is your style (fast food, casual, upscale dining)?
  • What is your theme? (local, regional, international cuisine)
  • Who is your target audience? (general public, exploratory eaters, specific cultural audience)

TWO: WHAT’S ON THE MENU

A great restaurant caters to its clientele with fresh and imaginative dishes for those seeking adventure, balanced with classic dishes for diners who are craving comfort and familiarity.

It’s important to get organised. Create a spreadsheet with all of your menu items*, organised by common menu sections, as they apply.

Typically, these will include:

  • Breakfast
  • Lunch
  • Appetisers
  • Dinner Entrees
  • Dinner Combinations
  • Desserts
  • Beverages (Alcoholic/Non-Alcoholic)
  • Children’s/Senior Options

*All menu items should have already been studied for cost-to-profit ratio and daily/weekly estimated inventory requirements, as well as shelf life and storage requirements (dry space, walk-in space, freezer space) to make sure they are consistent with your location and facilities.

THREE: MAKING MOUTHS WATER

A well-written menu description should invoke images, aromas, textures, and memories. It should be persuasive enough to tempt but still informative enough to make customers with special dietary needs feel comfortable with the safety of their choices.
Avoid simply providing a laundry list of ingredients but pepper your menu descriptions with adjectives and imagery.

These are critical considerations if your dishes’ names may not be familiar or understood by your diners. In fact, based on studies by Cornell University’s Food & Brand Lab, “Descriptive titles, like Nana’s Favorite Chicken Soup and Country Peach Tart, can help boost sales up to 27 per cent compared to simpler ones, like Chicken Soup and Peach Tart.”
Also, be sure to consult with your chef and kitchen team, find out how they would describe their favourite menu items, what comes to mind when eating them, and how those dishes make them feel.

Questions that can help:

  • What was the history or the inspiration for the dish?
  • What are the key ingredients, and how were they sourced (diners love words like “small farm”, “handcrafted”, “locally sourced”, and “organic”.)
  • What, if any, special preparation techniques are used?
  • For classic dishes, how has the chef remade them uniquely theirs?

Lastly, consider hiring a professional food writer and/ or restaurant reviewer to write or edit your descriptions.
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a few lines of food poetry makes an unbeatable combination.

FOUR: DESIGNING YOUR MENU

If you’re not hiring a professional graphic to design your menu, here are some options (both free and paid) that have a proven and popular track record with restauranteurs.

Canva Restaurant Menu Maker (Free/Paid) and Design Bold (Free/Paid), and iMenuPro (Paid) offer pre-made user-friendly templates and free subscription access to free stock images, editing tools, automatic resizing, drag and drop customisations, PNG, JPG, and PDF download outputs, and more.

Those who would rather rely on their own graphic design skills than on pre-made templates should consider top-rated software programs like Adobe Spark Menu Maker.
If time is not on your side (it rarely is for busy restaurant operators), enlisting the help of a menu design pro from Must Have Menus is an option. The experts will transform your item descriptions and requests into a unique restaurant menu in a matter of days.
The packages start at $199 per page and go up to $1,199 for three complete menus (dine-in, takeout, and table tents).

Now it’s time to decide how you want to order your menu items under each category. Some restaurants prefer to break down the order of their menu by main or subcategory/main ingredient like beef, chicken, fish, vegetarian, sandwiches, soups, salads, and so on.
Others, specifically multi-regional or multi-national, are often organised by the dishes’ specific regions (Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, etc.)

Though not as common, some restaurants align their menu items by price – typically low to high. Personally, I don’t recommend this method.
It doesn’t cost anything to move your menu items around on a spreadsheet or template until they’re in the exact order you want them to appear on the menu.

FIVE: MENU LAYOUT

Before you start collecting recipes or taking plated photos, a valuable first step in brainstorming your menu is to think about why menus are designed the way they are and how you want your customers to see your menu. These are invaluable elements of Menu Engineering, a concept that can supercharge your restaurant business’s success.

A simple but critical principle in menu engineering is The Golden Triangle. The Golden Triangle refers to the three key areas on a menu that most restaurant customers typically look at first (then second, then third). It studies how the brain perceives and prioritises data in a graphic layout.

There are three points on the triangle:
The first spot that tends to draw the eye is the middle/centre of the menu. This is an ideal location to list daily specials or limited-duration menu items.
Next, the eye moves to the top right. This is where you will most often find the main course and entree offerings.
The third point of the triangle is located in the top left corner. This is a favourite location for appetisers, soups, salads, and other add-ons, which can significantly increase profit per order when ordered along with an entree.

Dedicate the high-rent areas of your menu to your best-selling dishes and those with the highest profit margin. Once you’ve decided which sections you want to place in the Golden Triangle, you can figure out how to layout the rest of your menu items.

Once you have a layout you like and your dishes are in place on it, be sure to have it line-edited and reviewed by a professional line editor, as well as a chef (a couple of each are even better). If if you need to pay for these services, a small investment now is totally worth it, saving on redesigns and re-prints for a couple of hundred menus down the road.
Or worse… Having typos and mistakes being noticed by your customers.

SIX: SIZE MATTERS

The most common menu style has two pages, which should be plenty of room to attractively list your offerings without providing information overload.

CHEF’S NOTE: I loath being handed a menu with page after page of options. It’s a restaurant, not a supermarket. You don’t have to offer everything. Narrow it down to what you do better than anyone else, then work on making those dishes the best they can be. That’s what they’ll come back for.
~End of rant.

Less is more. While there’s no exact “best” number of pages, an overwhelming catalogue of meal options will only confuse and frustrate your customers. Try to keep it short and don’t overstuff each page with tiny font and cramped paragraphs, either.

Optimise your balance of ink to whitespace while maintaining clear and provocative item images and descriptions.

Create a separate menu for your desserts. Studies have shown that customers are less likely to order an appetiser if your desserts are on the main menu. Plus, if you have a separate menu, you can leave it on your tables for customers to browse throughout their meal and give them time to think about which dessert option they want to try.

Restaurants with an extensive selection of beverages may also want to make a separate beverage menu so they don’t take up too much space. You may want to include popular non-alcoholic beverages on your main menu, though, such as soft drinks, iced tea, or lemonade.

For a more modern or contemporary feel, you may opt for a single, two-sided menu in larger page size.

Speaking of size…

  • When you list each item’s price, use a slightly smaller font than used for the item description, and never bold the pricing font. Allowing costs to stand out from the rest of the menu encourages customers to scan the options for the best prices instead of your tantalising dish descriptions.
  • On a related note, remove all dollar signs from your prices. The dollar symbol negatively connotates many folks and focuses their perception on cost rather than value.
  • Lastly, use a slightly larger and bolded font for item titles. This helps diners scan the menu for favourite dishes and ingredients and encourages them to read the descriptions of those menu items.

While even the best menu won’t carry a restaurant without the addition of great food, exceptional service, and a whole lot of luck… The ideal restaurant menu is an expertly layered dish of eye-catching imagery, comforting layout, and delicious language.

Most importantly, it tells the story of you – your restaurant, your food, your passion.

Written by Chef Perry Perkins. To learn more about Chef Works, click here. 


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