What's your restaurant's best marketing tool?
Newspaper and radio ads? Uh-uh.
Slick brochures and flyers? Not a chance.
After word-of-mouth, the best way to promote your restaurant and your raison d'etre-the food that you serve to your customers is the promotional document they hold in their hands each time they visit you: your menu.
That simple document, taken for granted perhaps too often, says Flanagan Foodservice's Jackie Oakes, represents an important ROI. "A properly designed menu is an investment that returns a profit. Operators should recognize that it is not only an expense."
After positive word-of-mouth marketing supplied by satisfied customers, your menu is a primary marketing tool: it's the start of the dining experience at the table. It should be unique and specific to the establishment.
"Remember to place your logo on the front of the menu. Consider colour, fonts (use no more than two on your menu), graphics and appropriate white space because all of these can be used to project the personality and concept of your restaurant and are an integral part of the design process.
"Put yourself in your customers' shoes," Mike Miner says. As a former chef and Territory Manager with Flanagan's, he then asks, "What do you want to see when you are dining at a restaurant and looking at the menu? It should be easy for them to interpret. Remember that it is in fact an interpretation: your menu is suggesting what you are."
Enhance your menu for "strategic reading"
Diners tend to scan through a menu quickly at first and enter it at various points-apps, mains, desserts, seafood, steaks. You can't control those individual idiosyncrasies, but you can make sure the menu permits easy and clear reading. And that includes foregoing the elaborate cursive fonts. Keep it simple and legible.
Assume your customers are quite savvy and cunning when it comes to reading a menu: high among their list of priorities is checking out the price of your dishes. Restaurateurs might unwittingly facilitate this type of behaviour: when you separate the dish's description and place the price far to the right-hand column you are giving them the briefest moment to decide against a higher-priced dish-and that is not what you want.
"Instead, place your pricing right after the description of the meal. This way the customer is reading the description of the dish and its ingredients and basing their decision on that, not on the price," Oakes said.
Think about menu "real estate," says Miner. "The top of the inside left-hand page can be prime terrain, so use it for expensive items as much as possible."
Make Them Eat Your Words
You have about seven seconds to make a good impression. Word choice, diction, language: how you describe your menu items and its ingredients are the first steps to encouraging customers to make a decision-a decision you want them to make in the direction of higher priced items.
"You gently nudge them along and help them decide by naming your dishes and using descriptive words to enhance the menu item. Make your meals sound appetizing by referring to ethnic flavours or regions if applicable. Don't go overboard, but realize that the humble chicken wrap sounds a lot more enticing as a 'Mediterranean Chicken Wrap,' Oakes says.
"Without creating a long list, you can even focus down to specific ingredients, perhaps building up a fish dish as 'Broiled Lemon-Thyme Haddock.' It doesn't need to be elaborate but just enough to entice the customer such as adding the adjective 'flakey' to your chicken pot pie description."
In his experience, Miner says that the use of descriptive words in the right places and highlighting the right qualities is something of a lost art, in fact. "You are up selling. Don't ask if they want shrimp with the steak. Ask if they want succulent, perfectly grilled shrimp."
Don't COP out on Emphasizing Centre of the Plate
The Centre of the Plate (COP) is a key aspect in your restaurant and that should be reflected on your menu, whether that protein is a prime rib or a hamburger. Restaurant styles and operations vary, but each establishment will have some sort of signature item or dish that they are known for, says Oakes.
"No matter who you are, embrace your brand because it becomes a customer destination. For instance, people will say you have to go to Frank's because of his 'world-famous' wings.
"It's the same on the premium side. I would ensure that there is some sort of qualifier as a way of leveraging the item. It could be as simple as Atlantic or Pacific salmon, or it could be something more specific and proprietary such as Sterling Silver beef - anything that gives a positive and strong attribute to the protein, especially if it is a licensed brand."
As with other items on the menu, the COP benefits (as do you) with the language that is around it: hand-carved, perfectly cut, or anything that can elevate the dish.
"Think about telling a story," Oakes says. "Something along the lines as 'We support Canadian or local beef.' Or, 'We age our beef for such-and-such a time.' That's your brand, your story."
Change for Change's Sake?
Menu changes can be costly in terms of conceptualizing and developing new dishes, testing them, and seeing that the kitchen can create perfect versions of them each and every time. Then there is the cost of printing new menus. If yours is a restaurant that is able to change its menu seasonally, do it fully and don't dabble, according to Miner.
"I wouldn't make small changes to the menu. If you are going to change, make it noticeable-and promote that. Small changes are just that and they don't impress. For restaurants that can't change regularly, one thing they can do to stimulate sales is to create a one-page insert of seasonal items."
Whatever your signature dish is, and whatever else is on the menu, think about your brand, says Oakes. "Whether it is a hamburger or a salad, your menu has to be done differently than somewhere else. It's just like the name of your restaurant-it's your brand."
Menu Design Facts:
Keep in mind that your menu represents your brand.
Emphasize higher profit items.
Use graphics, boxes, or shading for directive visual appeal. "The simpler, the better," says Mike Miner. Use clear, effective headings and simple, clean fonts.
Make sure change is in the wind: minor changes may only get minor results.
Your menu should tell a "story" about the food you serve.