Valentine’s Day is one of the biggest dining days of the year, which makes it a huge business opportunity for restaurants. However, a fast pace, abundance of two-tops, and sky-high guest expectations require a kitchen that stays unfailingly efficient and precise. One smart way to pull off that execution is with a limited, fixed-price menu.
A set menu helps speed up turn times, because the kitchen has fewer unique dishes to prepare and can predict the time from ordering, firing, and serving a dish with unusual accuracy. With fewer options available, it also reduces guests’ decision-making time. You never want to rush guests through a special meal, but with planning and coordination, you can move them along and squeeze in an extra turn.
Set menus can also offer unique dishes and ingredients suitable for a special occasion. With the right approach, they can boost revenue – the trick is to streamline execution and present the dishes so guests see and appreciate their value.
We tapped two experts to share their best practices for set Valentine’s Day menus: Sherri Kimes, a revenue management specialist for the hospitality industry and Professor Emeritus at Cornell University, and Gregg Rapp, a menu engineer who develops and strategizes menus for restaurant professionals around the world.
Read on for tips on creating a Valentine’s Day menu designed to entice new guests, delight regulars, and boost your bottom line.
Keep menus short, sweet, and tried-and-true
Kimes advises creating a short menu of dishes that won’t take too long for the kitchen to execute. Limited menus also help simplify purchasing and reduce food waste, because you know exactly how much to order.
“What’s working now in the restaurant?” asks Rapp. “Find your stars – dishes that are high in profit and high in sales.” Many chefs may use Valentine’s Day to try out new dishes, but Rapp recommends studying what menu items are already benefiting the bottom line.
Offer the right amount of choice
For Rapp, three is the magic number when planning a menu, such as a choice of three appetizers and three entrees. Three gives you room for the obvious range of red meat, seafood, and vegetarian dishes, which provides plenty of choices for guests. Too few options may feel too restrictive, while too many adds complexity – “it’s easier for a person to choose from three items rather than two or five,” Rapp says.
Some restaurants may offer multiple fixed-price options, such as a four-course menu and a six-course menu, to give guests more flexibility and encourage them to spend more. Keep in mind, however, that greater guest choice necessarily puts more pressure on the kitchen. “There’s a lot more variability,” Kimes says. “You want to be getting people through in a timely fashion.” If you offer multiple menus, keep options limited so it’s easy for guests to make decisions.
Identify the right price point
When it comes to pricing, Kimes suggests two different approaches. The first offers a set menu demonstrating value in comparison to your regular menu, including a starter, main, dessert, and perhaps a couple of palate cleansers. “Regulars will compare it to your regular prices and see that it’s a good deal,” she says.
The second approach involves a menu featuring items outside of your typical repertoire, with a different composition or ingredients only available on Valentine’s Day. Incorporating items such as crab and lobster can elevate your whole menu to a higher status, creating a halo effect around other dishes, says Rapp. This approach creates freedom to play around with pricing so you don’t lose money on the more expensive ingredients.
“When you have one price for everything, people are looking to build their best value,” he explains. Expect more guests to choose the expensive items, and look for ways to demonstrate the value of what guests are enjoying across the entire menu (see tips on that below).
Use special ingredients and colorful description
A set menu includes more space to explain the dishes and what makes them unique, which helps justify the price. “I ask restaurant clients to tell the stories behind the items – the more you tell, the more value you’re giving to an item” says Rapp.
Include details about the source of ingredients, how they are made, or what techniques the chef uses to make dishes different from the restaurant across the street. Talk about it as if it’s special – more than just a transaction.
Build in accommodations for dietary preferences
With a set menu, it’s business critical to be mindful of and cater to guests’ dietary preferences. A streamlined menu should also be flexible enough to accommodate diners who are vegan or vegetarian, or dairy- or gluten-free.
Additionally, showcase crowd-pleasing stars, such as steak, rather than proteins that may be less familiar or more polarizing, such as lamb. Because options are limited, they need to appeal to the most people possible.
Embrace opportunities to upsell
From a revenue standpoint, set menus present opportunities to upsell guests with add-ons such as caviar, oysters, or a reserve wine pairing. Highlight those special ingredients on the menu to encourage participation, advises Kimes.
Still, it’s important to balance add-on opportunities with showing guests that value is already built into the experience. Rapp warns against the perception that you’re “nickel-and-diming” guests, so be smart and thoughtful about what you choose to offer.
Think beyond the wine pairing
Wine pairings are classic with set menus, but consider alternatives to the expected formats that might appeal to more guests. Kimes dined at a fixed-menu restaurant with a friend and her teenage daughter, and the menu featured a less expensive non-alcoholic beverage pairing next to the wine options. “Especially now, with more people not drinking, that’s something people can add on that might appeal to them,” she says.
Post your special menu front and center
Help guests avoid surprises by posting your Valentine’s Day menu where they can see it: your website, social media channels, your OpenTable profile, or even on a flyer or poster inside the restaurant. Set expectations up front, especially with regulars, so they don’t come in expecting to order their favorite dishes from your regular menu. Make sure all guests know when they book that they’re in for a one-of-a-kind experience.
Help your team prepare for the holiday, too. See tips for training your staff on special Valentine’s Day menus here.