Menu engineering for maximum profit

Menu engineering for maximum profit

By Heather Donahoe

Eva Sutherland is really good at what she does. And the roughly 1,500 restaurant operators she has helped in the past five years would probably agree.

As solutions program manager for Foodservices of America (FSA) in Seattle, Eva is charged with helping FSA’s restaurant clients run profitable operations. She accomplishes this by offering marketing solutions, menu engineering, staff training and various operational aids designed to help operators maximize efficiency and profit.

Menu engineering has proven to be a particularly important tool in Sutherland’s arsenal of resources. Most importantly, she teaches operators the basics of menu engineering, so they’re not dependent on her expertise.

“If customers know how to engineer their own menus, then they can redo their daily special or their fresh sheet or their happy hour menu whenever they want,” Sutherland said. “It’s sort of the ‘teach a man to fish’ philosophy.’ We want our customers to be successful, because if they succeed, so do we.”

So what is menu engineering, anyway? Though it may sound complicated, it’s really just evaluating menu items based on their sales and profit-generating potential. Beyond that, a menu is designed in such a way that customers are driven to the items that yield maximum profit. By knowing a few simple techniques, operators can construct a menu that compels customers to order based on the item they really want—not its price.

The first step, Sutherland says, is to focus on high profit items—not food cost percentages. In other words, resist the urge to bury the 22.99 steak on a menu, while giving the prime real estate to an 8.99 French dip.

“Sometimes after I’ve redone a menu, an operator will call me, panicked about a jump in food cost,” Sutherland said. “I always have to say, ‘Don’t worry. It’s just a barometer. You’re going to be selling higher dollar items now, but you’re going to be making a higher profit.”

When it comes to playing up the item—not the price—Sutherland strongly discourages operators from listing prices in a single column down the side of the menu. While most restaurants have caught on to this design tip, plenty of menus still make it easy for customers to skim up and down, looking for the dollar amount that seems right.

Instead, the menu designer should concentrate on attracting diners’ eyes to the menu items themselves. This is easily accomplished by considering the individual design principles.

The end game to a well-designed menu is, of course, bolstered profits. While all restaurants can appreciate a jump in sales, Sutherland remembers one client in particular who enjoyed significant benefits from her work on his menu.

“He has a restaurant in a seasonal area off of I-90, where he has lots of traffic and sales for about three months, but is pretty dead for the rest of the year,” Sutherland recalled. “He wrote me a thank you note, letting me know that because of the changes we made, this was the first year in more than 40 years of business that he didn’t have to borrow money to get through the slow season.”

Restaurant operators looking to refresh their menu offerings can also benefit from working with their vendors. FSA, for example, employs Chef Tracey Stephenson, who works with customers on new menu ideas, cross-utilizing multiple menu items, integrating trends into the menu lineup, controlling costs and improving kitchen flow and efficiency.

Restaurants that haven’t had a menu update in years should consider reaching out to suppliers and vendors. Routinely ordering the same items every week, offering the same menu month after month may work well in some isolated situations, but ultimately customers will return again and again to a restaurant that has achieved the delicate balance of menu consistency and innovation.

Menu design principles and strategies

Purposeful color: When developing colors for a restaurant brand and the menu, research what different colors represent. Colors have a psychological effect. The right ones create a mood, convey a personality, fire up the appetite and draw attention to food items. For example, red and yellow stimulate the appetite, while blue tends to suppress it.

Enticing graphics and photography: A strong menu will engage with professional graphics, illustrations and photography. Use these elements to attract attention to food items you really want to sell. A photo or an icon next or close to a description is one of the most effective tools for promoting highly profitable food items.

Strategic font: Always think of the audience when choosing a font; seniors, for example, will appreciate larger type. The font should be no smaller than 12 points. Sans serif fonts – those without “feet” – are popular choices for menus. As a rule, don’t use more than three different styles of type. Avoid or be sparing with exotic typefaces, script fonts and italics.

Deliberate placement and positioning: Menu design draws some inspiration from newspaper layout, which puts the most important articles at the top right of the front page. Some restaurants will place their most profitable items or specials in that spot. Elsewhere in the menu, items you want to sell the most should be shown in first and last position. These are typically your biggest sellers, so put careful thought into which items provide your greatest return. Another “power position” is the inside right page above the center.

Categorization: Research reveals that customers appreciate and prefer variety in a restaurant menu. The menu design should subdivide all food choices into smaller, specific categories to give the impression of choice. The greater the categorization, the greater the perception of variety will be.

(Source: Washington Restaurant Magazine, May 2014)