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How to Use Menu Engineering to Create a Profitable Menu

How to Use Menu Engineering to Create a Profitable Menu

Last updated on 7/25/2018

What is your most valuable piece of marketing as a restaurant? Putting careful thought into designing your menu is crucial, as every guest will browse through it. In addition to communicating your brand, your menu has the potential to increase your restaurant's profits. Engineering a profitable restaurant menu is all about creating a relaxing and fulfilling customer experience, so your menu should excite customers to try your culinary creations, be easy to read and digest, and should minimize worry of spending too much money. Below we explain menu engineering basics along with essential design tips based on menu psychology.

What Is Menu Engineering?

an easy-to-read menu based on menu engineering

Menu engineering is the practice of strategically designing your menu to maximize restaurant profits. Menu engineers highlight your restaurant’s most popular and profitable items through a variety of design techniques.

Menu engineering first requires analyzing the items on your menu to figure out which ones are the most popular and profitable. This is important, because you will be constructing your menu around these items. You will also want to double check that your menu is initially priced correctly for maximum profit.

Next, menu psychology comes in. Psychologists and menu engineers have identified a series of menu strategies that subliminally encourage guests to spend more. These strategies include emphasizing certain items and muting the costs of dishes.

Restaurant Menu Formatting According to Menu Psychology

Guests will only scan your menu for an average of 109 seconds. This means you have a small amount of time to set your menu’s tone for both customer satisfaction and optimal profit. Below are the basics to ease your customers' experience based on psychology research of menu design.

  • Make your menu scannable. Avoid crowded layouts, and choose an easy-to-read font and font size. Include clear section headings and visible dish titles.
  • Limit choices. The “paradox of choice” states that the more options we have, the more anxiety we feel. Psychologists suggest that restaurateurs limit options per category to around 7 items.
  • Choose a reasonable menu size. Physically oversized menus can be uncomfortable for guests to maneuver. Ensure your menu is easy to handle and can be easily placed on tables.

Remember: Even if your menu is more than one or two pages, menu engineers would agree that if your menu is scannable with fewer choices per category, guests will still feel at ease when making a choice from your menu.

Tips to Create a Profitable Restaurant Menu through Menu Engineering

Couple choosing from restaurant menu

In addition to general menu formatting guidelines to ease your customers’ experience, we can delve further into the psychology of menu design to encourage customers to spend at your restaurant. Below are the most popular and valuable menu engineering tips.

  1. Guide guests' attention to your high profit items. Studies show that customers are likely to order one of the first items that draws their attention. Since guests only spend an average of 109 seconds looking at your menu, it must be designed for guests to easily find key items.
    • Use an attention-grabbing technique. Include a photo, graphic, colored or shaded box, border, or surround the item(s) with white space. Only highlight one or two items per section.
    • Place the items you want to sell in the center, the top right corner, and the top left corner. Psychologists fittingly call these three areas “The Golden Triangle," and it refers to the way our eyes tend to move when first looking at a menu.
    • In each section, place your profitable items at the top of the list and one at the bottom. Studies show that people notice and order the top two items or the last item in each section more often than the others.
  2. Include a “decoy” menu item that would seem overly expensive to guests. Place this near your high profit margin items. They may already have a reasonable price, but when compared to the “decoy” item, they will appear even more attractive. Or, put a “decoy” item next to your high-profit, pricey items that would seem more reasonable when compared to the “decoy” item(s).
  3. On a similar note, try “bracketing". Include two portion options for one dish without including the exact size. The “larger” size will have a steeper price, such as $31, while the “smaller” size will have a seemingly cheaper price, like $22. The customer won’t know exactly how much smaller the small portion is, yet it will still seem to be the best value price, since it simply costs less. In reality, the “smaller” portion can be the one you wanted to sell the whole time, and this tactic makes the meal item more attractive because guests will feel they are choosing a dish with good value.
  4. Use photos sparingly or not at all. Excessive photos are associated with low-end, cheap venues, so high-end restaurants usually avoid photos. However, one photo per page has been shown to increase sales up to 30%, especially at casual, affordable eateries. If you still want to share more photos of your dishes, your Instagram or Facebook pages can do this for you.
  5. Use color. People respond to color in emotional, subconscious ways, so choose your color scheme accordingly.
  6. Colorful restaurant menu design
    • Bright colors like red, yellow, and orange capture attention and trigger appetite. You can use this to attract attention to specific areas of your menu and create a hierarchy for the layout.
    • You can also match your color scheme to your restaurant’s theme to reinforce associations. For example, use light blue to highlight the ocean-caught fish at your seafood restaurant, or use green and tan for a farm-to-table restaurant.
  7. Use selective, descriptive language. Many diners will make their final decisions off of this information. Descriptive menu labels lead to customers feeling more satisfied with their meals, and appetizing descriptions can also offset a high price.
  8. Invoke nostalgia or humanize dishes in another way. These menu items are attractive because customers feel like they’re ordering something special, and they induce happy memories of childhood or feelings of comfort and closeness. Examples: “Grandma’s Chocolate Chip Cookie," “Campfire Hot Chocolate," or references to the chef or restaurant owner, such as “Chef Mike’s Charbroiled Steak."
  9. Include a separate dessert menu. If guests see an eye-catching dessert, they are more likely to skip an appetizer. By surprising guests with your dessert menu after dinner, you are more likely to obtain appetizer and dessert sales.

How to Write Prices Based on Menu Psychology

The way you write your meal prices can make or break the rest of your menu engineering work. Be sure to incorporate the following suggestions in your restaurant menu.

  • Avoid ending your prices with .99. This can sound cheap and unsatisfying to many customers.
  • Avoid dollar signs. Currency indicators remind customers that they’re spending money and can even make them feel like they are spending more than they are. Soften the price by eliminating the dollar sign.
  • Avoid price trails. Price trails are dotted lines that connect your menu items to their price, which is often listed on the other side of the page. This takes the focus away from your dish description and straight to the price instead.
  • Avoid price columns. By placing your prices in a column next to your dishes, guests can easily compare prices and may make their decision based on the cheapest dish.
  • Utilize nested pricing instead. List the price discreetly after each meal description in the same size font, so customers’ eyes glide right over the price instead of focusing on it.

There are numerous useful techniques to get more out of your restaurant menu, and the way you decide to employ them may ultimately depend on your restaurant brand. Revamping your menu can not only create a more enjoyable experience for your guests, but it can also greatly improve your restaurant profits.

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