Do menus sway diners? In May We Suggest: Restaurant Menus and the Art of Persuasion, cultural critic and art history professor Alison Pearlman explores the topic of menus. She delves into past research, visits restaurants and surveys 60+ restaurant menus to determine how menus influence the dining experience.
Menus are powerful marketing tools. Although the book is not a business or restaurant management guide, there is a lot of wisdom in it for restaurateurs. Here are some ways to use menus to your advantage:
1. The type of restaurant determines menu design
While a classic deli or diner may use standard items descriptions and categories, a creative restaurant may break out of the traditional mold and instead of using standard categories like appetizers, entrees and desserts they can be use inventive categories such as snacks, warm, cold and platters.
Takeaway: Menus can be more creative when the cuisine is defined by the creativity of the che
2. The type of service impacts menu pricing
“All restaurateurs face a trade-off between volume and price,” says Pearlman. The choice boils down to speed of service. Sometimes lowering prices can actually increase profitability.
Takeaway: Slower table service must compensate with higher prices while quicker service and more turns require lower prices to attract greater volume
3. The type of service is dependent on the meal and time of day
Customers seeking a quick weekday lunch require a shorter list of items. The time a customer takes to review the menu and consult with the server impacts profitability as well as speed.
Takeaway: A longer list is ideal if it is made up of mostly familiar items, otherwise it can slow service
4. Broad appeal demands a wide variety
According to Pearlman, “The more restaurants cater to impulse visits, vie for the widest slice of the local market and aspire to the largest scale possible in number of units, the more likely they are to have long and varied menus.” For example, if everyone wants to go out for tacos, but one person wants a burger, or a Caesar salad they may veto a specific restaurant that won’t accommodate their desires. Finding a place that offers a wider variety of dishes makes it easier for a group to choose that restaurant.
Takeaway: One way to counter the “veto vote” is to offer a few crowd-pleasing items regardless of the restaurant niche
5. Accuracy and cleanliness count
“Always, menu descriptions must be accurate, the menu must be physically clean, and the restaurant must deliver what the menu promises,” says Pearlman. Diner’s perception of quality and value will determine whether they return to your restaurant or not. Stickers covering old prices bring attention to the fact that prices have risen. Diners have come to expect to find accurate menus online.
Takeaway: Consider menus a form of marketing and apply resources to keeping them clean and accurate if you want them to enhance your restaurant brand and experience
6. The size and scope of the menu matters
According to Pearlman, “Menus should be long or varied enough to maintain our interest, but brief enough to make profit making items easy to find.” There is no magic length to a menu, it is both subjective and depends on the situation but helping diners to navigate your menu is key.
Takeaway: The use of menu headings can help make a sprawling menu easier to navigate which in turn leads to easier and quicker ordering
7. Gourmet menus attract adventurous and trusting diners
“A gourmet menu, especially from an acclaimed kitchen, can count on diners’ adventurousness and willingness to submit to the will of the chef,” says Pearlman. A listing of esoteric ingredients and vague descriptions of menu items are typical on haute cuisine menus.
Takeaway: A menu that signals “gourmet” in every way (from the language used to the font), will attract diners more willing to splurge for example on a tasting menu
8. Navigability and legibility count
According to Pearlman “…cutting down on the number of subdivisions on a menu can enhance our perception of variety and stimulate us to buy more and in a wider range.” A clear visual hierarchy helps diners to understand the menu and make decisions.
Takeaway: Use categories and subcategories wisely to help guide diners to see the variety on your menu
9. Menu materials and forms shape our impressions of quality
“A restaurant’s promise must align with its product,” says Pearlman. While laminated menus with photos are appropriate for some restaurants, higher end menus typically eschew photos on menus and yet may use them extensively on websites.
Takeaway: A menu, like a website, is a calling card for a restaurant
10. Pricing matters
According to Pearlman, “A persuasive menu must distract us from the price of a meal or convince us that it’s worth the price.” The price mix and spread affects how we perceive value, as do subtle cues that call our attention to prices or distract us from them.
Takeaway: Downplay the physical presence of prices through the use of visual cues—using a smaller font, decreasing font size, eliminating decimal points and placing prices close to item descriptions