Sticky Note

Restaurant Menus 101 – Food

Atlanta, GA, (RM101) - In 2007, Huddle House realized it had a problem. With over 400 family-dining restaurants around the country, the chain wasn’t in danger of going bankrupt, but the owners knew they had to do something to buck the economy. People weren’t opening their wallets the way they were in the halcyon days of their nationwide expansion.

In search of a boost in sales, they decided to change the menu and begin persuasive promotion at the table. To do so, they hired a menu engineer by the name of Gregg Rapp and redesigned their menu from the top down.

Huddle House’s redesign, which included removing all of the dollar signs from their prices and adding copious amounts of description to their standard dishes, is a lesson in how important menus are to a restaurant.

Owners of both chains and local establishments have an opportunity that few in business have: They can put their most potent advertising directly into the hands of their customers and, best of all, their customers will read it. While this is an amazing opportunity to sell, many restaurants fail to take advantage.

If you’re ready to incorporate better menu design for your restaurant, here’s how to do it:

Your menu should reflect your restaurant’s style, the kind of food you serve and your customer base. Can you imagine how out of place a fancy French menu design would look if it landed on your table at Chili’s? There are techniques that work universally, but the overall concept of your menu should be unique to your product.

Basic Sales
In the grocery store industry, the term “eye-level” means everything. Manufacturers and vendors fight tooth and nail to get their products on eye-level shelves, as the vast majority of sales are made from this space. Restaurant menus have a similar secret: People naturally look at the top-right corner before looking at anything else. Take advantage of this fact by placing some of your most expensive, profitable dishes in this space.

Food Photography
You’ve probably noticed that food looks best when seen in advertisements. Endless photography tricks accomplish this effect. While it’s tempting to go overboard with this, you want to make sure the actual product at least resembles what is pictured in your menu. Still, there are good reasons for presenting your food in the best possible light. Some of the things to keep in mind when photographing your dishes for the menu include:

Lighting: Natural lighting can work wonders in food photography. If you’re taking the pictures in your restaurant, consider opening some windows and doors to let the sunshine in. Dingy lighting translates to dingy-looking food.

Test Settings: In Arnold Schwarzenegger’s autobiography, he noted that one of his most important acting lessons came when a director reminded him that even though he may be asked to deliver multiple takes of a scene, only one would be seen in a theater. The same holds true of your food photography. Try taking pictures in a variety of settings, so you will have a number of options to choose from.

Your Background: Generally speaking, the less clutter in the background of your photographs, the better. Your food should be the star of the show. Remove unnecessary spotlight hogs like silverware, condiments and colorful tablecloths.

Are photographs essential to your menu? Not necessarily, and this goes back to the importance of customization. The Blue Pig Tavern in Cape May, New Jersey, achieves an undeniably charming effect with a few delightful illustrations and a sparsely designed menu. This doesn't negate the need for pictures, because the images can still be used for marketing or creating a digital display board.

Food Preparation
Much of the food you see in advertising is completely inedible. Glue, for instance, is often substituted for milk, because it photographs so much whiter than the real thing. Don’t be afraid to make similar substitutions when creating pictures for your menu.

Motor oil often makes a good substitute for syrup, and shaving cream can stand in for whipped cream. When it comes to photographing beef, under-cooking the meat will help it retain as much moisture as possible. And PAM cooking spray, water and even hairspray can be used to add shine to food that may come across as dull and flat in a photograph.

Food Descriptions
Remember Huddle House? When menu expert Gregg Rapp was finished with his redesign, boring menu items were branded and ready to stick in the minds of their customers. Plain burgers became Chop House burgers. Bacon and sausage became The Smokehouse Platter.

Diners like this kind of extra touch when it comes to dish titles, but the actual words you use to describe your food are every bit as important. In other words, your menu is not the place for dry, boring text. If you aren’t capable of writing to entice, find a copywriter who can do this for you.

Sensory words (handcrafted, juicy), diet words (low-cal, vegetarian) and nostalgia (made from scratch, Aunt May’s Perfect Pie) hit the mark in a way that simple, direct descriptions don’t. Purple prose may not make it past an editor’s desk at the New York Times, but it is essential to a persuasive menu.

-Guest contribution from Brandon Serna with FASTSIGNS

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