Without a doubt, the menu is the cornerstone of any great restaurant. You can design a gorgeous space complete with exposed brick, high ceilings, and likely some barn wood somewhere, but without a great menu you won't get anywhere for long. As we prepare to create a new menu from scratch for Haven & Ale opening this year, as well as re-vamping our Puckett's and Puckett's Boat House menus this spring, I got to thinking about some of the important considerations that go into menu creation. There are many, many layers that go into designing a menu from scratch, but today I wanted to share some of the simple Do's and Don'ts when it comes to creating a menu.
1. Don't Overdo It
Easier said than done, right? Some of the best menus out there are incredibly simple both in design and execution. Alternatively, some of the worst are just too complicated and too much. You know the kind of menu I'm talking about -- the one where the print is so small that you can barely read it without a magnifying glass and features at least 200 menu items. There is nothing that screams "NOT FRESH" to me more than an overcrowded menu. Pair down your menu to just enough items to offer a variety while keeping it simple enough to execute each item flawlessly every time. For higher end restaurants, that may be 4-6 items per category and for more casual restaurants that may be closer to 8-10 per category.
2. Do Your Market Research
What is your market or neighborhood missing? You may have a great idea for an amazing new Pho restaurant, but are there already three that just opened on your block? You want to offer something to your guests that they can't already get two doors down. There can always be some overlap in the market, but you have to have something that distinguishes you and makes you stand out in the crowd.
Also, who is your demographic? Are you trying to reach the young and trendy crowd that flocks from one restaurant opening to the next Instagramming their way through each menu? Or would you prefer a more established clientele that may be more traditional but more stable? Make sure that you are in the right location to access your target demographic. For more information about your market contact the local city manager, area chamber, or business association and request a meeting with them (they will become your biggest cheerleaders) to learn more about your new community.
3. Don't Try to Be All Things to All People
Many of us have fallen into this trap, and it's a tough one to get out of. But no one is going to please everybody. Identify what you want to serve and then own it with all your heart, body, and soul. If you are a sushi restaurant, there is no reason to have a burger on your menu (unless maybe it's a fun play on a say, a smoked salmon burger. Now you're talking!) . In this day and age of "new American" (aka anything goes), there is a fine line between a beautifully curated and creative menu and a confusing one. No one likes to be confused, so make sure that your menu is sending the right messages about your brand identity.
4. Do Cost Out Everything
This is perhaps the boring but most crucial part of creating a menu. If you aren't costing out your menu, start doing it right now. RIGHT NOW! I'm being serious, go. It can be tedious at first, but if you don't know how much your menu costs then you don't know how much money you could be losing or making. The restaurant business is one of pennies and those pennies can make or break you. If you don't know how to do this yourself, then your next hire needs to be someone that does. Also, you should get yourself an account at restaurantowner.com where they have a ton of useful articles and templates that can help you figure it out. On average, your total cost of goods sold (COGS) should be around 30-33%. Some restaurants will be a little higher, especially those that serve high cost items like seafood or high end cuts of meat, but you have to make it up somewhere else on the menu to bring the overall cost down.
To get you started, you can download my New Menu Spreadsheet Template. I use this so that I can get an organized rundown of what each item is, how we want to describe it, the cost, the price to the guest, and the resulting COGS percentage. You can get this template sent right to your inbox by filling out the form at the end of this post.
5. Do Make It Pretty
Menu design is second only to menu execution. Make sure that the design of your menu is easy to read, flows naturally, and reflects your brand. Identify what your brand's personality is and how you want a guest to feel when they are reading your menu. Are you simple and elegant? Are you laid back and fun? Are you traditional and straightforward? I've included some images of our restaurant's menus as examples of different "personalities" for different concepts.
I hope this gives you a good starting point to designing your next menu. Do you have any Do's or Don'ts of your own when it comes to menu creation?