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How Menu Engineering Will Increase Your Restaurant Profits

A close up photo of a page from the Rio Grande Mexican restaurant dinner menu showing a geometric southwestern design motif.

Did you know the layout and design of your restaurant menu affect which dishes customers choose to buy and how much profit you can make from them? In fact, a well-designed menu can increase your earnings by up to 15%, with more future gains possible. In a previous post, we’ve touched on general menu design mistakes that can threaten your profits. Now, let’s take a deeper look at how layout and design decisions affect your bottom line. Simple features like the placement of your dishes on the page, the format of your prices, and more can make a surprising difference for your daily profits. This art is called menu engineering.

Good menu design builds on a lineup of great dishes that have been costed thoroughly and effectively. So, make sure you’ve analyzed and priced your dishes accurately to provide the profit margin you need to continue your business. Once that’s in place, clever menu design work using the principles of menu engineering will help you make the most of your dishes. One menu engineer estimates that, out of 100 restaurants, only 40 practice menu engineering, and out of those 40, only 10 are doing it well. In a competitive environment, menu engineering done well will set your restaurant well ahead of the rest. Keep reading to learn how to make success stories like 15% gains come true for your restaurant.

Dish Placement

The most significant factor in the success of your menu is how clear, well-thought-out, and easy to navigate it is. The foundation of an effective layout is intuitively arranged sections of dishes. One key task is to create highly specific sections to make it easier for customers to find what they’re looking for at a glance. Once you have your dishes divided into sections, select the ones you want to prioritize. These may be the types of dishes with the highest profit margins and the most popularity among your customers. If you’re a pizzeria, these are your specialty pizzas that attract lots of attention. Once these sections are identified, a few strategic locations in your menu will make these dishes stand out even more.

Different menu formats (from one-panel menus to two, three, or more panel designs) have different hotspots, but there is a general pattern you can use to your advantage. For the best effect, place the sections of your menu you want to highlight in “the golden triangle,” the parts of the page that get the best and first attention from viewers. This triangle is made up of the center of the menu page together with the top left and top right corners. Your sections and dishes placed in these locations will get more attention from viewers and be more likely to be chosen. This effect can happen differently depending on the menu format you’ve selected. Regardless of format, the top of the page consistently gets the most attention. The very bottom of a page can get more attention than average, but the area just above the bottom consistently gets the least. So, ensure you’re not putting your top-priority items in that zone.

This principle applies within sections as well. The order you list your items in each section clearly affects how much attention they get. The top items of a list are perceived to have the most importance, with the first item being the most important. Next, the bottom item in a list gets the most attention, but the items just above the bottom are the most likely to be overlooked. In light of this, keep your lists reasonably short (up to 5 or at most 7 items in each list) and easy to navigate, and make sure you’re putting your most profitable items in the best positions. Don’t overload your lists with too many options distracting from your star items.

Eye-Leading

Have you ever tried to find a lost object in a busy, cluttered room? The task of finding what you’re looking for is made far more hectic by the presence of countless other things calling for your attention. Now imagine that same task in a neatly ordered room with no clutter and ample room to move around. Customers pouring over your menu can have a similar experience if you’ve designed a cluttered or orderly. If you make serious design mistakes like not implementing text hierarchy or failing to leave space between sections, you’ll create a massive wall of text that all blends together and creates a headache for your visitors. One important task of menu engineering is to create an uncluttered menu that is easy to navigate.

One simple technique to help is to use special symbols or icons to indicate vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free items. Then, rather than scanning all your titles and descriptions to find one of these dishes, customers can quickly find these particular offerings.

Importantly, leaving sufficient room between sections and making smart use of negative space is one of the most effective ways to help viewers navigate your menu. Rather than trying to move around a cluttered room, proper spacing acts like walkways, providing clear paths to navigate a menu. If everything is bunched together on your menu, finding a dish to order becomes something like finding a needle in a haystack.

Next, text hierarchy is a simple concept but one that can quickly transform your menu into a far more pleasant and readable experience. Text hierarchy is the practice of using variations in the format of text to differentiate between areas of text and their precedence. For example, one obvious use is that section headings should be formatted in a larger text size than body text within that section. This design makes it easy for viewers to distinguish the various sections of your menu and navigate from one to the other. It’s also important to make it easy to quickly recognize different forms of text, such as dish names and descriptions.

Finally, you can use various visual cues to highlight the dishes you want to ensure customers see. The most prominent way many menus accomplish this is with food photography. One menu engineering expert found that illustrating a dish with an attractive photo could increase sales of that dish by up to 30% if that photo was the only one on the page. Photography can cheapen your presentation, however, making this strategy one you may want to avoid in the context of fine dining. You can also emphasize dishes through many other means, like highlighting an item with a box, special symbols, different colors, and many more. Just be sure to do this carefully. The more you use these techniques to emphasize items, the less effect they’ll have. Limit yourself to one highlighted item per category to keep this strategy effective.

Missteps in this aspect of web design keep your dishes from living up to their potential. If customers have difficulty reading and navigating your menu, they’ll also have a harder time finding the meals they want, leaving with a needlessly disappointing experience. It’ll also make it harder for visitors to find your key, profit-turning dishes that you want them to see. This blur of a menu design makes it impossible for your items to stand out. But if you use these techniques to direct attention to your leading dishes, you’ll further fine-tune your menu for the best performance. Customers may look at your menu for only two minutes before placing their order. So, make sure they see your high-priority dishes in that time.

Price Formatting

You may think that the way you format your dish prices in your menu is a pretty straightforward choice without much significance. Or, you may have never thought about a connection between your price formatting and your profits. But how you format pricing for your menu does have a sizeable impact on how much your customers spend.

The typical way restaurants format their dish prices, with dish names and descriptions on the left and prices with dollar signs aligned on the right, might actually make your profits suffer. This layout groups all the prices together on their own in a column, inviting the customer to scan through your dishes by their price. When this happens, the customer will often look for the cheapest items first and order from those. This line of dollar signs makes customers think primarily about money and how much they’ll have to spend to enjoy the meal. As they scan your menu, you want your guests to think primarily about the dish’s flavor and excitement rather than the cost.

Instead, print the prices alongside the dish itself, placed a couple spaces after the end of the description and in the same font size and style. Also, drop the dollar sign and print just the numeral of the price alone. Formatting the price with the dollar sign reinforces associations with money and leads your customer to think mostly about the price, not the dish itself. According to one study by Cornell University, listing your prices with just the number leads customers to spend “significantly more.”

With all this in mind, print your prices at the end of your descriptions with just the number “16,” for example, and not “$16,” “sixteen,” or “sixteen dollars.” When formatted like this, your guests will be more likely to decide based on the dish’s taste and experience, not its price.

Conclusion

No restaurant owner would deny the importance of their menu, but it may be even more important than they think. With menu engineering, your menu can be equipped to become the most effective sales tool in your kit. Once you’ve done the work to get people through your door, the menu takes over and turns that work into higher profits. So, don’t overlook your menu or fail to use it to its full potential. Make sure your menu is aligned with your goals and set up to help you achieve them.

Menu engineering is one effective way to do just that. Often, a restaurant’s main concern with their menu is just how to fit all their dishes on it. Yet, applying clever thinking and dedication to your menu, as you apply it to every other aspect of your restaurant, will help you become an even more effective restaurant and raise your profits.

If you’d like some help tuning up or redesigning your menu, check out our restaurant marketing services and see how we can transform your menu and other printed materials.

Meet Jordan
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How Menu Engineering Will Increase Your Restaurant Profits

by | Apr 2, 2024 | Learning, Menu Design, Print Design

Jordan is the Content Marketer and Designer at Starry Eyes, helping with creative projects as well as social media planning, market research, and SEO. He is obsessed with books, soccer, pottery, and various nerdy things. Jordan is a bit of a hipster and is still coming to terms with that. Big fan of trees.

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