How to Design a Menu

Instructor: Mary Matthiesen-Jones

Mary has worked around the world for over 30 years in international business, advertising, and market research. She has a Master's degree in International Management and has taught University undergraduate and graduate level courses .

A restaurant's menu is its main selling tool and can contribute to a restaurant's profitability. Let's learn about how to design a menu for maximum appeal with customers.

Menu design basics

Restaurant menus serve several purposes. Menus reflect the type and character of a restaurant. Menus provide descriptions of food that make guests want to order. Menus organize what a restaurant serves so it is easy for guests to order. Menus also provide pricing.

The best menus help customers decide what to order, steer them to what the restaurant wants them to order, and make a direct contribution to a restaurant's bottom line. However, creating that great menu means doing more than just listing what food is available and what it costs.

Great menus need more than food and prices
Great menus need more

There are a number of design and psychological factors to consider.

How many items to include

The more choices we have, the harder it is to decide. This is the ''paradox of choice''. For menus, the magic number is seven. With more than seven items in a category, people get confused and stick to safe choices rather than maybe trying out a new and potentially more profitable item. Management decides the items, but breaking things into categories of no more than seven choices helps steer customers towards what the restaurant would like them to order.

How people read menus

People rarely read an entire menu. The average customer scans a menu for just under two minutes! The menu, therefore, needs to make it as easy as possible for customers to identify what is available and what they want. People also read menus like a book, from the top left down. Therefore, it makes sense to put the specials you want to promote or your most profitable items where their eyes will go first.

How to arrange the menu

Most people think about their food in a logical sequence, starting with appetizers, moving on to entrees, and then finally dessert. Arranging a menu into sections that group dishes together by category with clear headings makes it easy for customers to scan the menu and make their selections.

Within each category, items that appear first and last on a vertically arranged menu are also where people tend to spend more time. The items in those places are likely to be the most popular. The placement of items that are more profitable in those high attention areas contributes to the bottom line. Separating high-profit items from other items by highlighting them with boxes or more white space also draws the eye to them and can increase sales.

How to describe the food

Food descriptions need to give people a clear idea of what they are ordering. Customers may not understand culinary jargon or foreign language names. For example, a menu that offers ''salmon en papillotte'' should indicate that this is salmon baked in parchment paper. If people do not understand what the food is, they will not order it.

How to show food

Whether or not to include pictures or illustrations of food is often a subject of debate. The answer is usually ''it depends''.

To show or not to show the food
showing food

From a design perspective, a large number of color photographs of food on a menu are often associated with inexpensive chain restaurants. High quality food photography is also difficult and more expensive. However, a limited use of color photography can increase sales for certain items. Applebee's restaurants for example, includes only one color picture per panel in their menus, highlighting the dish they want to promote. High end restaurants, on the other hand, may avoid photos altogether in order to present a higher quality image.

How to show prices

Pricing is all about psychology. The price should not be a deterrent to ordering the items the restaurant wants to promote. Several simple design tricks can reduce the psychological effects of a price.

  • Never draw the eye to the prices with lines. Lines lead people to read prices first to see what they can afford.
  • Use ''nested'' pricing. List the price in the same font size right after the item so the eye will tend to pass over it.
  • Get rid of dollar signs. Those are reminders that money is involved. Showing 12.00 rather than $12.00 reduces the impact.
  • List the most expensive item first. Regardless of the price, everything that follows seems more affordable.

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