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The Ten-Minute Manager??™s Guide to ... Menu Design

Author profile: Frank Fileccia
For over 32 years Frank Fileccia has been helping luxury inn, boutique hotel, resort and restaurant clients achieve their potential.
So much critical analysis, creative effort and care goes into developing menu items that it??™s tempting to give short shrift to said items??™ packaging??”the menu. But slapping a collection of tested and perfected foods and beverages on a piece of paper and hoping for the best does not a solid menu-design strategy make.

Successful operators know that the physical menu is an extension of the operation??™s brand. Extra menu touches such as the use of artistic elements from the restaurant or helpful hints for guests (wine suggestions and food-allergy notes) express a commitment to detail.

Dallas-based Boston??™s The Gourmet Pizza places a tiny wineglass icon in one of four colors next to pastas on its menu as a way to recommend wine pairings. Portsmouth, N.H.??™s Blue Mermaid Island Grill displays a banana-leaf graphic on the front of its menu to convey freshness and a vibrant island spirit.

Show and Tell

A previous menu design at Oregano??™s, a Phoenix-based casual-dining pizza concept, was so popular that around 40 menus disappeared from Oregano??™s locations within six months. Created to resemble record albums from the Big Band era and costing more than $20 each to produce, the menus proved too good for their own good. But their popularity showed Oregano??™s executives just what a brand-boosting tool menus could be.

"It was really beloved," says Gary Tarr, president of Free Range Productions, which designs the menus for Oregano??™s. "The goal with the menus has always been to have this stand-alone thing. It??™s just more of a fun concept than listing things out and having a price ... Some of these places, I think they focus more on the cover of the menu, and then on the inside they just have a slip of paper with ???Chicken and Broccoli, $9.95.??™"

Oregano??™s colorful, irreverent current menu??”a clearly columned trifold??”still attracts interest for its originality. The description for the Pablo Picasso Mexico Salad reads: "A masterful blend of grilled fajita chicken, romaine lettuce, Cheddar cheese, fresh cilantro, tomatoes and onion, drizzled with a slightly spicy chipotle dressing and mixed with corn strips. Can you say hola Pablo? Cubists unite!"

Playful descriptions can make guests smile, but they also communicate Oregano??™s emphasis on value. Copy for the Big Beefstro Salad ("grab a fork and belly up!") and the Veggie Wedgie ("jam-packed with dusted saut?©ed eggplant, fresh portabello mushrooms and provolone cheese") lets customers know they aren??™t in for a flimsy salad or sandwich. They might pay more??”$9.39 for the Big Beefstro, $7.59 for the Veggie Wedgie??”than they would for similar items at a quick-service restaurant, but with illustrative copy, Oregano??™s more-bang-for-your-buck message is clear.

Design School

Ted McCall, a menu-design instructor at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, N.C., says that the most important element of menu design is the simplest. "First and foremost, is it readable?" he asks. "Does it flow easily for the consumer???™"

McCall worked as kitchen manager at Carrollton, Texas-based T.G.I. Friday??™s and was a sous-chef at The Great Escape in Weymouth, Mass., and he notes that the basic tenets of good menu design are the same whether the restaurant is a burger joint or a three-star dining room.

"Generally, the way that people focus is tops and bottoms," he says. "Those items that are at the highest level of profit should be at the top and bottom of [a] category."

Operators need to take care not to confuse popularity with profitability. "Put your most profitable item at the top of the page, your second-most profitable at the bottom," he says. The most popular item??”which may have a lower profitability??”can go in the prime space just above the center of the right-hand page.

Rather than relying on servers or an album??™s worth of photos to communicate a brand message, McCall says, operators should look to cleanly lined copy in an easy-to-read type as their primary in-restaurant marketing tool. If an operation uses locally sourced or sustainable ingredients, it should say as much on the menu. If it can adjust recipes to accommodate those who have food allergies, it should state so somewhere on the menu.

McCall says that restaurants have moved away from descriptive copy on menus at a time when consumers are more interested in food than ever??”an unfortunate trend, he believes. While customers don??™t need a paragraph-long item description, they do, for example, need to know the size of the pork chop they??™re considering ordering.

"Consumers are wise, but they don??™t know everything," McCall says. "We??™re taxing servers with the explanation of a lot of items."

Fit to Print

A relaxed but refined atmosphere at island-inspired Blue Mermaid Island Grill in Portsmouth, N.H., betrays a menu-design process that is anything but casual.

"We go so far as to analyze to the penny the gross margin on things," says owner Scott Logan. "Knowing your numbers is a crucial element to being successful in this business." Although Blue Mermaid??™s number crunching requires an extra investment of time and money, Logan says that the surefootedness the restaurant gains makes the effort worthwhile.

Blue Mermaid??™s printing company helps supply menu-psychology guidance. "We spend a lot of time on that," Logan says. He notes that simple tactics such as visually setting apart items the restaurant wants to showcase in a given six-month menu cycle remain effective. "When we do a circle or highlight something on the menu, [customers] will point it out and say, ???That must be your specialty,??™" he says.

Customer comments that find support in sales analyses are useful when considering which items to keep and which to drop, Logan adds. Another bottom-line-boosting key, he says, is having every item offered??”drinks, specials, desserts??”in print so that customers can more easily peruse the selections.

"Anything you put in print in front of customers is going to sell," he says. "It??™s very important that we have our beverage selection in print for guests to select from, because they will."

Page Turners

Experts offer these starting points for menu design:


* Ease of use. Basic user-friendliness??”in the menu??™s physical size, in the font??™s style and size, and in the organization of items??”is key. "I like to be able to find the things I want to find," says Doug MacDonald of Boston??™s The Gourmet Pizza.

* A design that matches the restaurant??™s concept and purpose. The menu "is part of the whole experience to take you someplace else," says Free Range Productions President Gary Tarr. Adds MacDonald: "You want something that says something about where you are."

* Standout artistic elements. "What people do with the physical menu??”laminating it to a sheet of bamboo, or the way the menu is clipped or attached to a backing," can spark guest interest, says Scott Logan of Blue Mermaid Island Grill.


* Clutter. "Jam-packed menus" are a pet peeve of Tarr??™s. "Seeing one thing on a menu in three different places" irks Logan.

* Yawn-worthy presentation. Though readability is critical, a simple list of menu items and their prices in an everyday serif font is a bore, says Tarr.

* Misspellings. For the sake of professionalism and continuity, proofread.


Choice is good, but when Dallas-based Boston??™s The Gourmet Pizza (menu pictured, right) overhauled its menu design in 2005, the chain??™s executives realized they had too much of a good thing. A surfeit of selections made for a menu that was hard to handle.

"We heard a couple of themes [from customers]," says Boston??™s President Doug MacDonald. "The first was that it was too big, too unwieldy??”a party of six couldn??™t read them together. And the other was navigation; we heard that it was kind of crowded and busy." The old menu was a trifold with more than 100 items; the new menu features around 90 items on seven 11-inch by 9.5-inch pages in a binder.

Boston??™s also upgraded its food photography. The current menu features two full-page pizza photos and no more than four smaller photos per page. "If you put in a picture of an item, it will sell; if you put a box around it, it will sell a little better," MacDonald says. "If you??™re trying to do that with everything, it becomes clutter."
Copyright?© Frank Fileccia

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