By: Arman Razavi, MOA

Don’t miss a great opportunity to communicate with your guests.

In the first part of our menu design tutorial, we discussed responsible approach to creating and costing out a menu. Once this part is done, you can turn your attention to creating the physical menu itself. But what is menu design? Is it as simple as naming the items, prices and their ingredients? The simple answer is, it can be. But if that’s the only thing you are using your menu for, you are missing a great opportunity to communicate with your guests. Recently I posted a 2010 TEDx presentation on this blog by Simon Sinek exploring “How Great leaders inspire action,” which I highly recommend for everyone to watch. In that piece Mr. Sinek explores the theory of the Golden Circle and its impact on creating loyalty. Without going too much in to that discussion, the jest of the presentation is that if businesses can convey “why” and work their way back to “how” and “what,” their chances for success increase exponentially. You might wonder how that theory affects something as basic as a menu. In short, menu design is one of the most elemental ways to start a dialogue with your guests in an effort to convey the whys while addressing the hows and the whats in one informational piece of collateral.

Simply put, menu design is an art form. It is not to say that it should only look artistic, but rather an art of communication. It is a defining element which speaks volumes and conveys integral information about you and your business to your guests. It is the first tangible asset in your guests’ hands, which tells the story of your business and your guests are 100% sure to read it. In F&B, like all other businesses, our goal is (or at least should be,) to create a narrative. A compelling narrative is what defines your business and differentiates you from your competitors. Without this narrative, your brand might seem confusing, erratic or even misleading. Businesses convey this narrative in many ways through architectural cues, design, atmosphere, logos, lighting, websites, and you guessed it, menus. A well-organized narrative has all of these elements point to one direction in what is commonly called brand alignment.

In QSR industry, there are various studies on the art of menu design; where to place the menu, how to light it, what font to use, etc. For example, there is a widely cited research by Gallup which reports that guests will spend 109 seconds on average reading a menu.  I have not been able to find the published research but its existence demonstrates the meticulous attention paid to the psychology of menu design. As we move further away from QSRs toward the world of fine dining, bars and lounges, we move further away from a prescribed template and more toward an individualistic approach. This realm is ruled by individuals like the chefs, the mixologists or the graphic designers for the most part. Although they are all perfectly reasonable choices to handle the task of menu design, they are not always the ideal choices. The art of menu design is greater than the sum of its parts. There are many aspects of it to consider and it should be a team effort. Corporate entities such as hotels and chains enjoy the counsel of advertising firms who can help out with access to focus groups and researches. For those unable to tap in to those resources, I have put together a quick reference guide. Following these basic guidelines will increase the rate of penetration and success.

 1. Formatting

A menu can take many different formats such as single-page format; the multi-page, single fold; and, of course, the three-panel, two-fold variety. No matter which format you choose and what cover you go with, keep in mind that all too often menus are not given enough budgets and are treated as an afterthought. Your menu represents your establishment and it should convey the feel and look of the overall design of your venue. A laminated menu in a fine dining setting is probably not a good idea and visa versa, a leather bound menu is probably and overkill for a quick service setting. While remaining original is important, try to put yourself in the guests’ seats. Keep the format simple and easy to follow.

2. Typography

Once again, consistency is the key. As you design your concept, come up with no less than 2 and no more than 3 fonts you will use in your business. Menus as well as business cards, all signage, collateral, emails and signatures should use the same fonts and match your marketing material. It goes without saying that menus should be readable but some venues use font to convey a message of value. The idea that if it is hard to read, it is hard to do has been around for decades. According to Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz of the University of Michigan, as part of their ongoing cognitive fluency research, “If you are selling a costly product, describing it using a hard to read font will suggest to the viewer that more effort went into creating that product.” It is important to note that as a part of the same study, what the researchers found out is that subjects shied away from texts that are hard to read!

Another factor to consider are the size of the font and the lighting; how many times have you noticed guests squinting to read the menu or using their phones to light it up? Depending on lighting, fonts and menu sizes may need to be adjusted. Making the menu readable is not just for the convenience of the guests, you are using it to make a sale!

3. Your restaurant menu should be a manageable size.

In restaurants, the size of the kitchen will dictate the size of your menu. Don’t try to overdo it. Restaurant menus also serve as a form of cost control. As the options on the menu increase, so does the chance of waste at the end of the night and higher costs. If you try to serve a complex menu, you might also end up sacrificing quality and service.

In bars and lounges, higher number of options doesn’t necessarily have a direct correlation with higher cost seen in restaurants but could lead to that. In the era of craft cocktails, the ingredients and the garnishes are more at risk than the liquor per se. The danger is the time it takes to prepare a cocktail properly. The capacity of the lounge dictates how intricate your cocktails list can get. If you are serving a few hundred guests at a time and have a couple of bartenders, it would probably not make sense to have recipes that require 6-10 minutes of preparation.

4. The “huh?” factor

How many times have you witnessed average guests struggle with the description of items. I freely admit that I have been there myself a few times! Sometimes I wonder if chefs are trying to communicate with other chefs rather than with the guests!  But sometimes, especially in fine dining restaurants, the language dictates the cost. In a 2008 article Jeremy Caplan noted, “It’s no secret that the cost of a restaurant dish tends to mirror its complexity. That’s why a menu item that says ‘medley of berry conserves and pureed pindas’ is likely to cost five times what it would if it were just called peanut butter and jelly.” And that is perfectly fine. Just don’t make your guests feel stupid, you have little to gain and a lot to lose. Train your staff to explain the menu thoroughly and properly.

5. Create a narrative

I am a big believer in using the menu to begin a narrative about your venue. It might be an industrial loft or a French bistro, this is your story and no one can tell it better than you. The menu is a guaranteed internal marketing tool. You can use it to tell your guests about your background, the chef, the history of the venue, the region or whatever you feel would enhance the guests’ experience. Using “eye magnets,” you can draw the guests’ attention to various points on the menu, which in turn can help with the narrative or highlight a special. At a lounge I managed, I once named the cocktails after famous rock songs with a little background about each song. There is really no formula here and varies from location to location, so have fun with it.

6. Policy and Disclaimers

Here is a good opportunity to let the guests know any noteworthy information such as hours of operations, days of the week, social media, specials, rewards and loyalty programs. If there is automatic gratuity added to parties of a certain size, or if you do not accept certain forms of payment or if certain dishes or cocktails would take longer to prepare, let them know in the menu. Your server might be having a tough night and might forget to let the guests know, you don’t want it to come as a surprise at the end of their stay!

Always proofread your menu a few times.

Always proofread your menu a few times.

7. Always proofread

Have you ever prepared a menu only to find out that you spelled Expresso instead of Espresso, or muscles instead of mussels? It is a common occurrence and happens every day at venues around the world; but it is avoidable. Proofread the menu yourself, have a second and a third person do the same. You want your menu to attract attention but only for the right reasons!

8. Update often

Items change; ingredients change; prices change; never stop updating your menus. Before you know it, you are serving a 2007 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco instead of the 2005 and the price will vary quite a bit! That’s one of the reasons most insiders are against laminated menus. With today’s technology, printing in-house is easier than ever. Most kitchens keep their menus up to date daily. Bars and lounges create daily special cocktails and beer selections and offer different wine flights; keep your daily promotions fresh and keep your guests updated with upcoming events and specials.

In conclusion, a menu is more than just an items list, treat it with respect. When I am out, I always hold on the one menu at the table. The 109 seconds rule doesn’t really apply to me. I like to take my time to read through the menu. I learn so much about a business from it. No one says you can’t have a minimalist approach to design. Even with a minimalist approach you can still give certain clues to your guests and form an impression. With the advance of technology, there will be a day when physical menus will become obsolete. Until that day, you can use these basic guidelines to engage your guests.

I hope you’ve found this post useful and I wish you the best of luck. Send me your questions or topics you would like discussed and I will do my best to address them. You can follow me here or on Twitter @RazaviArman.