The Art of the Menu by Ann Elliott

26th February 2016

What do customers see when they look at a menu? What draws their eye: the prices, the specials, the cocktails? Designing a successful menu is much more than just listing what is on offer, and at Elliotts we have witnessed first-hand the difference a quality menu can make – both in terms of branding and potential earnings. Our latest menu project for a hotel chain delivered a 23% increase in profitability without amending any dish or altering any specification.

Our advice, having worked on menu design and layout for a number of high-profile hospitality brands in the UK, tends to fall within the following categories (not necessarily in this order).

Consider your stock: First things first, what is the menu made of? We start with the message our clients want their menu to convey and how it can best be reflected in the materials used. For a high-end French brasserie for instance, laminated wipe-down menus would be inappropriate. An organic juice bar might bolster its brand image (and save money) by printing on recycled stock. The quality of the physical menu plays an integral role in communicating brand image. 

Think about how customers interact with the menu: Some restaurants hand menus to their customers as they sit down. Others have menus on the table. Wagamama uses its menus as placemats, so customers are constantly in contact with sides, desserts and drinks while they eat. Different approaches benefit different styles of restaurant – consistency in format across a brand though is important.

Build on prime menu real estate: We have read the results of a number of eye-tracking experiments, which have proven, amongst other things, the eye is initially drawn to the top-right of the menu. This is where to put signature dishes, popular foods or dishes with the highest margins – it’s the first place customers look. People then tend to skip to the left hand side of the menu: starters go here.

Show us what you’ve got: Using photographs or images can increase item-specific sales by as much as 30%. This approach certainly does not suit all brands – fast food perhaps but not casual dining (on the whole). Whilst brands may not choose to put photos on their menus, customers are taking photos of their own and sharing them. Plate presentation has to be Instagrammable.

Have a way with words: The more descriptive a menu is, the better its contents will sell. On-trend adjectives such as “pulled” or “beer-battered” can increase sales by up to 27%. Descriptive copy (albeit not too flowery or over the top) leads customers to rate food quality higher. Good copywriting on menu descriptors is really imperative.

Reduce the focus on money: Focus attention instead on menu descriptions, eg don’t use pound signs in front of prices and don’t list them in a column. This layout is much easier on the eye and means customers choose their meal based on preference rather than price. 

Create negative space: An obvious tactic is to put a box around profitable items or promotions. The negative space draws customer attention towards these areas and increases propensity to purchase.

Make the most of recommendations: Our research has shown a “chef’s favourites” section or icon has a demonstrable positive impact on customer choice.

There is such a thing as too much choice: Studies have shown it is psychologically most effective to include between seven and ten choices per menu section. Customers are more likely to regret their decision when faced with too many choices – fewer options equals increased satisfaction. 

Have a benchmark priced product: Then ladder other menu prices up or down from this core price. This helps too when comparing prices versus competitors.

Menu “science” may be about capitalising on the customer’s biases and preconceptions, but it isn’t about forcing their hand. For me, a great menu is about carefully guiding the customer through the optimum dining experience. You make it easy for them, and they’ll make it easy for you.

Ann Elliott is chief executive of leading sector PR and marketing agency Elliotts –

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