By Chris Tripoli
Chef Glenn Cates gets off the plane in McAllen, Texas, fresh from his tour of selected restaurants in Victoria and Monterrey, Mexico. He reflects on the menu items he has tasted, presentations seen and the local product availability.
Traveling with his client was a part of the research he was doing for the menu he is developing for a new restaurant concept in McAllen. Cates tells me the best menus result from good research and well-defined objectives. “The more you listen to your client’s expectations and the more defined the customer profile, the better chance you have of hitting the target,” says Cates
He should know. For more than 10 years Cates has been a full-time consulting chef developing menus for restaurants around the world. His work in Houston includes Truluck’s Seafood, Steak and Stone Crab and, more recently, La Casa del Caballo. He has traveled through Mexico, the Caribbean and the Middle East creating a variety of menus for independent restaurant owners in those places.
The menu is the heart of any restaurant. All operating systems, styles of service and marketing and promotion should work around it. The menu represents what your concept is to the guest. It offers the opportunity to create your “point of difference” and determine the restaurant’s profitability.
Making a menu requires careful planning, market research, product testing, accurate pricing and proper design. Developing the menu is a process. It begins with a general outline of items included in the restaurant’s original business plan, but it doesn’t end when the menu is printed and presented to guests at their table. Instead it continues with review and adjustments made as you successfully operate the restaurant.
Much like constructing a house, menus that work have a strong foundation and follow a process that includes planning, design and building.
There are five steps for creating a new menu:
1. DETERMINING THE CORE MENU comes first and is meant to set the direction that both represents the intention of the concept and meets the demands of the customer you plan to attract. This step requires discussion and research of the market segment your restaurant is in.
Customer expectations of the menu vary greatly from fast casual to family dining and upper-casual concepts. Knowing your customer profile allows you to better determine your core menu.
For example, late last year chef Jared Estes opened Cook & Collins in Midtown. In a recent conversation he recounted the discussions he and the other developers had regarding the core menu direction. They determined the customer profile to be a combination of the local residents, downtown workers and evening Midtown visitors. This group may vary somewhat in age, income and buying habits, but it had commonality with successful neighborhood concepts in other cities
“Quality neighborhood dining may be relatively new to Houston, but it’s quite common in more established cities. We chose to study Little Goat and some concepts by Lettuce Entertain You in Chicago,” says Estes. He explained that his group’s objective was to offer easy-to-understand product items that could be presented in a new, more interesting fashion. It was during this initial menu step that he was able to determine core product items, plan the number of items to offer on the menu and a rough price range. Regardless of the market segment you choose, it is important to remember that today’s customers expect more. They are more knowledgeable, dine out more often, have more choices than ever before and appreciate finding the “what’s new” and “what’s next” in restaurants.
2. BUILDING THE MENU is the next step and typically includes multiple test sessions with owners, partners, the chef and key personnel. This is when you want to further define the cooking style and confirm that the items being developed conform to the concept as previously determined. Protein items, cross-utilization of product, taste, portion and presentation decisions happen during this stage.
This is usually when most of us make our first menu mistake. We typically break an important rule in menu development, which is never menu for yourself. Successful menus are the ones that hit target with the intended customer and not necessarily the taste of every owner or chef involved in the restaurant. I well remember working with my small group developing the opening menu for the last restaurant I owned. I had to have a particular trout dish on the menu simply because I loved it. I convinced myself it fit the concept and would be well accepted. Of course it wasn’t, and I learned once again that success means “don’t menu for yourself.”
- Don’t menu for yourself. Define your customer profile and keep your eye on the target.
- Variety doesn’t mean having more items, but more distinctive presentations of your items.
- Set menu prices by balancing the item cost with the sales mix and market acceptance.
- Don’t overlook the importance of providing a good children’s menu.
- Sell more desserts by presenting a separate menu.
- List items you want to sell most on top or at the bottom of the menu section.
- Keep your menu descriptions simple.
- List prices at the end of the description, not in a separate column.
- Manage your menu. Regularly review item sales and make adjustments.
- Taste! Do line checks at the beginning of every shift to check the taste.
Proper portioning is a lesson that is also typically learned during this stage. Estes reminds us that more isn’t always better. “Everything must fit,” he says. “You wouldn’t put a large couch in a small apartment’s living room, so remember to balance the protein with the amount of sauce, color and garnish.”
Most menu building takes places in a restaurant kitchen or at home and lasts two to three months.
3. SELECTING THE MENU ITEMS that will best represent your concept takes more than taste, portion and proper presentation. This step is known as the operations-related piece of the puzzle. It includes deciding on the amount and variety of items per category, cross-utilization of product, determining the cost of each menu item and recommended pricing. If building the menu helps to define the concept, then determining the menu items further clarifies it.
You must exceed your customers’ expectations; they will, at a minimum, expect your selected items to represent value, freshness, health, variety, convenience and service. Remember that variety doesn’t mean more items, but rather more interesting things done with your menu items. I have seen many menus that were supposed to be engineered in a way that would sell more appetizers. Having 12 appetizer items on the menu instead of seven doesn’t guarantee more sales. But it will mean more product to inventory, prepare and, perhaps, waste.
Convenience in menu development doesn’t always pertain to packaging, grab-and-go and drive-thru windows. In full-service restaurants convenience means being able to order meals while sitting at the bar. It might also mean being allowed to transfer a check from the bar to a table. Good menus are the ones that allow the guest to easily customize an item to avoid a sauce or an issue with an allergy. Good menu service might mean including a quality children’s menu or the option to split an entrée or order a smaller portion.
Determining menu prices is best done when all three concerns are balanced: The cost of the item, the market acceptance of the price and the number of items expected to be sold are equally important.
Costing a menu item is an exercise that includes an accurate list of ingredients, portion and preparation method for each item. This is sometimes referred to as a plate recipe or recipe reference. (You can find templates for these at restaurantowner.com.)
You should not set a menu price strictly on the basis that the recipe cost met your desired food cost. The price should be considered in context with the menu, or “sales mix.” This is why the roasted chicken may be more expensive in a fine steakhouse than at a more casual concept down the street. It isn’t that the chicken found at the steakhouse was Ivy League schooled or some special rare breed. It is priced higher to balance with the steak prices in order to sell more steak, thus creating the desired sales mix.
Finally a check within the market helps define what the customer seems willing to pay for certain items. For example, if coffee costs $3.50 at most restaurants similar to yours, why would you price yours at $3?
4. DESIGNING THE MENU is a very important step because it presents your concept to the guest, creates an image and expectation, and goes a long way in determining which menu item may be selected. I recommend using a graphic artist who specializes in menu design, as he or she may provide appropriate suggestions regarding font, size, color, descriptions and price placement.
When using the popular oversized one-panel menu (illustration A), remember that the guest will look at the center section first, then move up before reading the items in the section at the bottom. During this step, the less-experienced operator will sometimes break another menu rule, which is never to price.
There is still a feeling among some that it is easier to present a message of value if every section on the menu begins with the least expensive selection at the top and most expensive at the bottom. This just isn’t true. In fact we have found that it is best to place the items you feel best represent your concept and have the better gross margin at the top and bottom of each section because people seem to read the first listing and last listing more than the ones in the middle of the section.
Another good rule to follow is placing the price at the end of the written menu description rather than making a separate price column. I recommend a menu description that isn’t too long and detailed — no story-telling. A good menu description is one that mentions the product, how it is topped (if appropriate) and what it is served with. Example: Grilled chicken breast topped with roasted poblano served with garlic mashies.
When using a two-panel menu (illustration B) it is good to remember how the guest’s eye will move from right center, to top right, before moving over to top left.
If this were an Italian grill wanting to serve more beef, chicken and seafood entrées than pizza, I would recommend listing the entrées on the right side in the center, placing pastas on the top right, listing soups, appetizers and salads on the left panel and leaving pizza on the bottom right.MORE MENU DESIGN SUGGESTIONS:
- Provide a separate menu for dessert.It is easier to sell desserts if they are notlisted on the main menu.
- Wine lists and specialty drink menus seem to be more effective if they are separate as well.
- Listing appetizers as “small plates,” “to share” or “starters” seems to encourage more sales than does the word “appetizers.”
5. MENU MANAGEMENT is what good operators do as a part of their daily activities. Long after the research, development, pricing and designing are over, the menu must be properly managed in order to maximize its success.
“Never underestimate the importance of tasting,” says Jared Estes. He explains that if it weren’t for the shift line checks at Cook & Collins, he wouldn’t feel confident that every item could be presented to specification consistently.
“Little things can happen,” he continues, and minor mistakes can occur even with the easiest of recipes. Without tasting you wouldn’t know that something has gone off-track. Consistency is the goal of every menu because as most chefs believe, a concept is judged by each guest with every visit. In other words, we are only as good as the last meal served.
Line checks are done every shift, and menu item sales reports are typically taken every day. These are reviewed for menu planning and inventory-control purposes. It is best to make a menu review and daily-special planning a part of the weekly managers meeting agenda.
One good thing about menu development is that it’s a process and should not ever be looked at as a totally completed item. Adjustments with simple additions and deletions can be made regularly. The guest usually accepts these as a positive.
Sometimes established restaurants have a challenge making additions and other menu adjustments because of what they see as a customer backlash. But when properly done, even established menus can be updated in a way that pays special attention to the “traditional” or “classic” items that long-time regulars would not appreciate being deleted.
Sudie’s Seafood in Pasadena and Clear Lake and, more recently, James Coney Island are two local examples of menu expansion and concept rebranding done in that way. Whether the menu you are developing is for a firsttime concept or one that has existed 50 years, most of the principles to follow are the same.