Concept & Quality Are the Keys to a Successful Menu

The restaurant industry is, by nature, ambitious and complex. By the numbers, it’s also a high-risk business—60% of restaurants shutter within three years. But while “the causes of these failures are numerous,” writes former restaurant consultant Christine Letchinger, “many of them are firmly in place even before a restaurant first opens its doors to customers.”

The key to restaurant success is having a clear, viable restaurant concept. While that involves many aspects—including location, marketing plan, and competitive advantage—the menu is a major player in your restaurant’s identity. Whether you are just starting out or maintaining a successful establishment, Letchinger’s menu tips can focus and revitalize your menu.

Menu Mistake #1: Too Much Variety

A menu has to balance focus with variety. The most common mistake restaurants make is to offer a menu with a very broad range of items. First, this dilutes the restaurant concept—and thus your identity with customers. It introduces logistical challenges for chefs, leads to inconsistent quality, and increases the risk of supply outages. Overwhelming the customer with pages of options can be confusing and slows down the ordering process. “Something for everyone” sounds like a nice idea, but it’s impossible to sustain quality if you offer a little of everything.

Menu Mistake #2: Too Limited

A menu that is too focused, on the other hand, may not have sufficiently broad appeal for the target market. The menu concept itself may be too narrow; trend-based menus, for example, can only expect to endure while the trend is hot. Or the offerings may be limited by chef preference, rather than customer demand. A restaurant that offers no kid-friendly meals, for example, cannot expect to attract families.

Hallmarks of Successful Menus

So what makes a good menu? In short, stick to your strengths, be objective about your offerings, and lead with a viable pricing strategy. Letchinger offers these seven suggestions:

1. Develop signature items to establish your reputation and expand your market.

2. Objectively test all your menu items to achieve best quality and streamlined production.

3. Use precise recipes and proportions for each dish, so cost is consistently accurate.

4. Monitor your menu constantly for sales trends, and introduce new items regularly.

5. Know your competition, and price your items accordingly. If your cheeseburger is 20% more expensive than the one down the street, it had better be 20% higher quality, too.

6. Stick within a price threshold that encourages upsell. Alcohol, sides and desserts are low-cost add-ons that are critical for profitability.

7. Be sure your pricing strategy is appropriate for the concept and your financial goals.

Letchinger, an experienced restaurant consultant and Associate Professor at Chicago’s Kendall College, has extensively studied the life-cycle of restaurants. Her recent article “The Anatomy of Restaurant Failure: Dead Man Walking” offers many insights on what it takes to open (and ultimately, close) a successful restaurant. Read the full article.