The Science Behind Menu Design

fine dining menu

I read an excellent article yesterday over at PizzaMarketplace.com on how to use menu engineering to grow your profits by 3 to 5% – just through your menu. Check it out here. We’ve covered menu engineering before. And, we’ve covered the neuromarketing science behind menu design.

However, we’ve never just come out and talked about the best practices and science behind menu design. This post will be a roundup of all the best tips we’ve seen lately for menu design. Here goes.

Ed Zimmerman gave the three key concepts behind your menu’s job and the core of menu design science:

  1. The menu positions your restaurant. In Zimmerman’s example, paper menus work great for a takeout pizzeria. People order pizza on a regular basis, so it makes sense to send them on their way with your menu. However, he says a paper menu is completely wrong for a white tablecloth upscale Italian ristorante with a fine wine list. He calls it confusing to customers. The scientific conclusion: Your menu tells your customer what type of place you are. If you want to understand market positioning at a deep level, read Positioning by the guys who invented the word, Al Ries and Jack Trout.
  2. Menus showcase your products. Your menu is your catalog or showroom. It gives your customers a product description and lets them know what you do.
  3. Menus sell your product. Your menu is your brochure. It is the tool with which your buyer will make a decision. It also acts as much a salesperson as your servers. That’s the whole purpose of menu engineering, Zimmerman says.

A paper menu is completely wrong for a white tablecloth upscale Italian ristorante with a fine wine list.

How Menu Engineering Affects Design

It’s all about placement and showcasing menus in their best light. You can have the best food in the world, but if your menu doesn’t tell me why I should buy it, why would I?

On his Neuroscience Marketing blog, Roger Dooley recently explored the difference in eggs and fresh-cracked eggs on restaurant menus. The conclusion was that eggs are cracked at some point. But this tiny statement or adjective use sets you apart (or positions) you from the frozen egg restaurants of the world. And as a self-proclaimed egg snob, I’ll tell you this would sell me. I’m not into square pre-frozen eggs. I won’t eat them – ever.

Fresh cracked eggs or plain eggs? In the three words, your customers know your food is fresh. That’s science!

Dooley also notes an article from the New York Times that examines the science behind menu design and it’s ability to sell more items. One interesting note from this article is that consumers love attaching someone’s name to a menu selection. According to Sarah Kershaw’s article, customers are much more likely to buy “Grandma’s zucchini cookies, burgers freshly ground at Uncle Sol’s butcher shop this morning and Aunt Phyllis’s famous wedge salad.”

Tips and Tricks for Engineering the Design

Customers have sniffed out our tactics to get them interested in upping their purchases. There’s even a book on it by William Poundstone. We recommend you check it out alongside these articles, which include overview of Poundstone’s book on the subject (complete with a menu visual) and a blog post from the Food Network.

Dooley has some more advice on the subject that tie directly to design – Push items with boxes, white space, graphic elements or, in some cases, a photo. He says photos don’t belong in fine dining, but they “work well in more casual environments.”

Photos don’t belong in fine dining menus.

Cornell University did a study to see whether the dollar sign mattered or not. Conclusion? Customers spend significantly more when you price at 14 instead of $14. If there’s one bit of advice you take away from this, remove the dollar signs as quickly as possible!

Have you ever hired a menu engineering consultant to help you draw in more sales? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Want a cost-effective way to get your menu just right? Check out our new custom menu design services to start engineering your sales-driving menu.

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About Amanda

Amanda Brandon got her start in food working takeout for a busy BBQ restaurant—alone—on her first day. She spent the next four years at McAlister's Deli, while completing her journalism degree at the University of Mississippi. The next stop was a dual role as the managing editor of PMQ Magazine (a pizza trade) and as the publicist for the U.S. Pizza Team. Since 2005, she has worked in marketing, freelance writing and social media for a number of industries including restaurants.
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