Menu Theory & Engineering for Beginners

Menu Theory

Posted on 06, February, 2015

Last Modified on 25, August, 2023

Ever wonder why your eyes are drawn to certain items on a menu? Or maybe why you want that piece of chocolate cake, even though you hate dessert? You may not actually want it at all, menus can be strategically designed to lead you to that conclusion. Menu engineering is an entire field of study devoted to the construction of restaurant menus. This field is also commonly referred to as menu theory or menu psychology. By starting to implement some techniques, restaurants can improve their menu graphics, pricing structure, and promotional techniques. Before digging into to the heavy duty stuff, start with these basic tips to engineer your menu.

1. Knowing Your Stars, Workhorses & Dogs

Dog at a restaurant
Make sure you know about the
"dogs" on your menu.

Every menu item can be divided into stars, workhorses and dogs (SW & D). Stars are extremely popular and have a high profit margin, workhorses are popular but have a low profit margin, and dogs are unpopular items. By understanding where all your menu items fall, you’ll have a much easier time when you get to the design phase. Try laying all the menu items out in a spreadsheet to better organize and interpret item-by-item performance.

2. Menu = Business Card

Many managers and owners view the menu as a means to an end, but this is far from the truth. Beyond showing customers food offerings, a menu is a direct reflection of the business. Think of your menu as a resume, or better yet, a business card. Heavily consider the message you want your menu sending to customers before picking graphics and layout. Takeout menus often double as flyers, so it’s important to make an appealing design. If customers are teeter-tottering on giving your restaurant a shot, pleasing menu graphics could be the driving factor that makes their decision. Visual aesthetics are a very important aspect in the restaurant industry.

3. The Inside-Out Sandwich Technique

Inside out sandwich technique
You get the idea.

Most would argue that the most defining part of the sandwich is what’s in between the bread. While the bread and buns are important, the good stuff is in the middle. Well the opposite should go for menu design. Psychology studies show that when memorizing lists, people are most likely to remember the beginning and the end while forgetting what’s in the middle. Therefore, your most valuable menu real estate lies at the top and bottom of each section. This where knowing your SW & D's comes in handy. Place items throughout the menu accordingly.

4. Price Strategically

This is one of the most important aspects of menu building. Start by determining the contribution margin for each item. With a baseline gross profit on every item determined, you can raise or lower prices to increase the profit and total number of purchases. Items are often priced too high and won’t sell. If the contribution margin is high enough then that price can afford to be lowered, resulting in more sales. By discovering both overpriced and underpriced items, it’s easy to find where profit can be increased.

5. Keep It Simple

While it’s important to understand the different aspects of menu psychology, it’s also important not to over think everything. Gain a fundamental understanding of the basic techniques and then get to work. After establishing a baseline for performance, owners can then analyze how items are performing and start making minor (and trackable) tweaks. Too much change at once can be off-putting to customers and cause confusion. Subtle changes make it easier to track impact and earnings. Over the course of a year you can continually make minor changes and have a brand new menu without anyone realizing it.

Next time you find yourself sitting at a restaurant and perusing the menu, take a look at the structure, design, and layout. Use these five steps to analyze other menus and brainstorm your own ideas. Menu engineering is an ongoing process that should be constantly reviewed to consistently improve sales. By considering small menu changes, profits can be marginally improved.

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