Several years ago, I launched a restaurant with two friends and we made a bunch of rookie mistakes. We stumbled right out of the gate, struggling to attract and retain customers.
We tried tweaking the restaurant from all sorts of angles - operating hours, concept, decor, signage - but nothing really helped.
Then, we redesigned our menu.
The redesign process transformed the restaurant and the business. Our monthly sales more than doubled, we built a reliable base of regulars, and our marketing and operations became much more effective.
Big results, but the process wasn’t complicated.
We followed a simple two-step approach to take our menu from a confusing mess to a powerful sales (and marketing) tool.
I’ll unpack our story and the two-step process in more detail later, but first let’s dive into some menu design strategy fundamentals.
What makes a good menu?
Let’s get one thing out of the way - there is no single generic formula for a perfect menu.
A good menu supports its restaurant’s mission, making the diner’s experience smooth and easy.
Fast food joints, for example, are built on speed and convenience. Fast food menus, therefore, have to offer quick and easy choices.
Take McDonald’s ordering kiosks, for example. The touch screen system is quick, efficient, and almost everything you do is based on images and ease-of-use.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Michelin star restaurants like Noma rarely use product photos or individual prices. Instead, they present their diners with more limited choices and a more targeted “experience”.
Diners arrive at Noma already knowing how much they’re going to pay and expecting to be walked through a completely unique foodie evening. Noma’s menu is a no-frills, simple document that quietly allows the highly trained servers to lead the experience.
Just like there’s a spectrum of experiences, there’s a range of menus to match. Noma’s menu isn’t better than McDonalds’ menu - it’s just better for Noma and its patrons. Both menus are highly effective because they reflect strong identities and provide their customers with easy decisions.
Where to start:
Step 1: Focus
If you’re designing a menu, you’ve got to begin with your restaurant’s identity. What’s your purpose? What makes you special?
Like any business, it’s important for restaurants to clearly define what they’re doing, who they’re serving, and how they’re doing it.
The best way to do this is with a positioning statement, like this:
"[Restaurant Name] is a [Restaurant Type] serving [Target Customers] with [Experience / Service Highlight]"
Most restaurants never really define what they’re trying to do. It’s tough to create a relevant menu if there’s no clarity about the restaurant’s mission and audience.
A strong positioning statement will help solve the #1 menu problem that struggling restaurants face - a lack of focus.
So far I’ve shown you menus that get it right. Pick up a good menu and you should immediately “get” what the restaurant is trying to do.
Many restaurants never get there, and it’s often because of unfocused menus.
Have you ever watched Kitchen Nightmares? Literally every episode - for 12 seasons! - is built around a menu redesign (plus staff training and a physical makeover).
Compare the menus I mentioned above (McDonald’s and Noma) with this crazy booklet from Sebastian’s (Kitchen Nightmares Season 1, Episode 6). It’s so complicated even the servers can’t figure it out!
Kitchen Nightmare examples might seem like wild horror stories made for TV, but they’re actually representative of very common problems - and the blame often lies squarely on the menu strategy. Many restaurants share these two big menu mistakes:
- Including too many options. It’s confusing and inconvenient for the diner.
- Including options that don’t fit with each other. Again, it’s confusing, inconvenient, and potentially off-putting!
It’s a really common problem with inexperienced restaurant owners. Thankfully, there’s an equally simple solution to both issues - delete, delete, delete!
Huge, diverse menus don’t help the diner. Instead, they dilute a restaurant’s identity and make the customer’s experience a difficult one.
If you’re not sure which dishes to chop and which to keep, here’s what you should do:
Step 2: Design
Once you’ve nailed your restaurant’s identity and core dishes, it’s up to your menu to sell - and sell the right items! In order to do that, you’ve got to consider the menu’s design elements and formatting.
Here are two simple questions you can use to grade your menu:
- Is it easy for your audience to read / navigate?
- Does it promote your core dishes?
Effective menus are easy to read with simple decisions for diners to make. That’s true at fast food joints, fine dining establishments, and everything in between.
Basically, don’t do this:
A menu’s readability, organization, and layout will ultimately determine how effective it is.
Good design actively attracts a reader’s eye to certain areas of the page. In this article about brochure design, Neville covered how viewers’ eyes are drawn to certain elements of a page - the same principles apply directly to restaurant menus.
Here’s a useful reference guide by Gregg Rapp where readers are likely to zero in on.
If you’ve carried out the action steps from the previous section and refocused your restaurant around a couple of star dishes, you’ve got to make sure they stand out on the menu.
Here’s an example of a restaurant doing exactly that, highlighting its oyster bar - the most expensive item on the menu - in the top right hand corner:
Notice the food photos in TGI Friday's menu. They’re not accidental choices - the photos actively guide diners to premium dishes.
(Suddenly hungry for ribs?)
Great design is all about helping your customers the right way. Food photography is great for a fast casual eatery, but might not be a relevant strategy for a finer dining establishment.
Compare TGI Friday’s menu to that of Hen of the Wood, an upscale restaurant in Burlington, VT.
(TGI Friday’s vs Hen of the Wood; zoomed out to highlight the design contrast)
They’re both great menus because they’re both relevant guides for their respective audiences.
TGI Friday’s patrons are often families or groups. They want a menu that’s wide enough to cater to everyone, is a step up from fast food, and won’t break the bank. Diners can navigate the big menu easily because of clear sections and big, attractive photos on each page. If you show up hungry, you’re likely to find some inspiration as you thumb through the menu.
Hen of the Wood, on the other hand, features a menu that rotates daily. It’s clientele shows up knowing what to expect - a totally unique experience with great food and excellent service.
Food photography would be both distracting and tough for the restaurant to implement, since the menu changes every day. Part of the attraction of finer dining is being able to say, “Surprise me!”, and giving yourself over to the restaurant, the chef’s choices, and the server’s guidance.
Totally different restaurants with totally different menus.
Still, the desired effect is the same - both menus help diners navigate their experiences easily and efficiently.
However you decide to present your menu, you must consider your patrons’ experience.
Great photos won’t help if they’re from past menu items that aren’t available. Fantastic dish descriptions will be wasted if the font is unreadable.
Strong design is all about usability and relevance. It’s your chance to guide your customers through a great experience, your way.
Examples of successful menu redesigns
Tikanis and South Street redesigns:
These are two restaurants with similar positioning and similar starting points. Both Tikanis and South Street started off with relatively bland, text-heavy menus and ended up executing very similar menu redesigns. Their new menus featured much more color, selected (and attractive) food photography, and strategically highlighted menu items.
[table id=31 /]
Our 2-step menu redesign
Step 1: Creating focus
We launched Le Hangover in one of Montreal’s foodie neighborhoods, with the general aim of serving late night clientele.
Version 1 of our menu reflected a couple of big problems around the restaurant’s identity and the diners’ experience. Version 1
We had too many dishes, different types of cuisine, and a “unique” layout that was tough to read.
The first step we took to fixing things was to niche down and get much more specific with the restaurant’s concept. We started by creating a positioning statement:
“Le Hangover is an upscale comfort food restaurant serving downtown Montrealers before, during, and after a big night out.”
This tighter focus made it easy to take Version 1 of the menu to the chopping block. We immediately got rid of over half of it.
Version 2 was a lot simpler. We took the menu off of the chalkboard and just printed it out. This is what it looked like:
This step was 80% of the battle. Once we stripped things down to a more focused menu, everyone - diners, our staff, and us - started enjoying the experience more.
Having physical copies of the menu also made it a lot easier to start marketing to the businesses and apartment buildings around us.
We saw results immediately - several groups from nearby offices started coming for lunch on a daily basis. Major improvement!
Within a month of launching Version 2, we had enough sales to pinpoint our most popular dishes - the sliders, the fried chicken, and Philly cheesesteak sandwich. These were the stars we would build around.
Step 1: Strategic Design
Once we knew what to focus on, we started improving our design.
We hired a professional photographer to take improved food photos and went to town with our social media accounts, promoting our three core dishes. When diners came in to the restaurant, they often already knew what to expect and wanted to order the sliders, fried chicken, or cheesesteak sandwich.
Our 3 most popular items
Next, we hired a graphic designer to combine Version 2 (the simple text-only menu) with our visual elements and create a brochure-style menu. Here’s what Version 3 of the menu looked like:
Version 3: digital version
Version 3: printed out
Within a month of rolling out Version 3, we were listed with three local delivery companies and started expanding our hours to serve a growing base. Our monthly sales more than doubled in the two months between Version 1 and 3.
At this point our marketing also took a big turn - instead of constantly having to knock on doors, local advertising companies, food bloggers, and social media influencers started approaching us.
The new menu was a constant reference point for these new allies. It allowed us to quickly express what Le Hangover was all about. Better yet, it helped our friends speak about us with clarity.
Make no mistake about it, other people can’t help you if you don’t have your basic tools in place, and chief among them is a solid menu.
Without the redesign process, we wouldn’t have developed local traction.
Your menu is a reflection of your business. A messy menu suggests a messy concept and a struggling business - not exactly attractive for diners, ad agencies, or delivery companies. It’s a sign of a sinking ship.
A good menu, on the other hand, can act like a beacon for your target audience. It signals a restaurant with a clear concept and a cohesive experience. It’ll attract the right people and make it easier for other businesses to work with you.
Here’s another look at the stages we went through with our redesign:
1 = poor content and poor design
2 = good content
3 = good content and good design
[table id=30 /]
The transformation was a dramatic one. It completely changed the ordering experience for diners and made our lives as business owners much, much easier.
There’s a lotthat goes into great menu design, but that shouldn’t intimidate you. Even making one clear improvement at a time can dramatically affect your operation, sales, and reputation!
If you’re building your menu (or improving an existing one) but don’t quite know how to go through it, we’ve included a downloadable set of questions that should help you focus your positioning and design effectively.
How to design (or redesign) a menu in 2 simple steps (template)
- Share with colleagues -
- In Google Docs format -
- Includes infographic -
- Download and save -
Dan McDermott - Danmcd.me