The Art and Business of the Menu

Imagine opening a Cheesecake Factory menu and realizing it’s basically the white pages of American cuisine, with options as numerous and portions as oversized as the columns that decorate its interior. A menu is an object that is the result of a collaboration between restaurateur and designer. I’m lucky enough to help shape the look and feel of restaurants in my daily design practice. There are great resources like Art of the Menu for keeping track of visual trends, and the New York Public Library has an amazing online collection of vintage menu design.

But designers have a greater responsibility than just the visual appeal of menus. We’re essentially tour guides, shepherding diners through their restaurant experience with well-designed touch points that assist with everything from ordering to signing the receipt. We have an obligation to guests (ensuring a pleasant, efficient ordering experience, for instance), and we also have a business obligation to help maximize profit for the restaurant.

“Menu engineering” isn’t the most graceful term, but it is a good description of what Bill Paul, founder and president of Menu Advantage, does every day. He told me that the idea began with the aptly titled 1982 book Menu Engineering, written by Don Smith and Michael Casanova. Paul believes that simple decisions—choosing between one-page and multiple-page formats, or highlighting certain dishes—can make a difference in helping a restaurant thrive.

Paul is able to analyze different data sets, such as food costs and gross profit margins, and assign probabilities of success or failure to certain approaches before they are implemented. Ideally, the entire process of menu design and testing is repetitive. You try new products and new merchandising techniques, and the restaurant constantly tests, revises, and evaluates the process. The design should always enhance this strategy.

As a starting point, Paul suggests listing the dishes that make the restaurant the most profit, and then using your best descriptive language for the items at the top. This is called “adhering to a continuum of appeal.” The best copywriter might be the restauranteur herself, rather than an outside professional, because she knows the product best. In multiple-page-format menus, most diners stop reading about halfway through. You only have two to five minutes of the guest’s attention, so you have to make that time count. People are easily overwhelmed. When that happens, they often order something familiar and easy, like a hamburger. This means you don’t need to waste space describing the hamburger in a flowery way. Guests order it anyway.

But the process isn’t black and white. Achieving the balance between what guests want and what is profitable is difficult. I wondered if focus groups entered into this process. “Focus groups don’t always lead to clarity,” Paul says. “In a group setting, for instance, people may say in front of their peers that they want more healthy options on the menu, but that’s not what they actually order. So, the ticket usually ends up being the best representation of what’s working.”

I asked Paul to demonstrate his analytic process by assessing this charming vintage menu from the Waldorf Astoria, circa 1938. Some edits were easy. He describes the menu as “a passive bill-of-fare menu, with a lot of congestion and generic categories.” In other words, lots of room for improvement. He noted that the menu listed prices in a right-aligned column straight down, making it too easy for the consumer to compare prices. Paul recommends using the same typeface (in the same weight) for the prices and embedding them within the description, rather than highlighting them. It’s another reminder that menus look different to Paul than they do to us—and that we as designers should be aware how our choices affect a restaurant’s bottom line.


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