15 Menu Tweaks that Can Increase Profits

Boost your restaurant's bottom line with these simple but savvy shifts.
The menu design for your small business is more essential than you might realize. (Photo: stokpic/Pixabay)

How important is the right menu for a restaurant? “It’s the single most important piece of marketing collateral they have,” said restaurant consultant Aaron Allen of Aaron Allen & Associates, whose clients represent $100 billion in restaurant business around the world.

Everything from how you present items on the menu to how you describe specials and display prices can affect your profits, not to mention how your restaurant is perceived.

For restaurant owners, said Allen, “their margins, profitability, how effective they’re going to be at sustaining their business, everything from inventory turnover to equipment they need — a lot of it rests on the menu itself.”

The right menu design is essential. “For every million dollars in revenue that a restaurant does, just by rearranging items on a menu — not changing prices, just using new merchandising techniques — they’ll get an extra $1000 per month in new profit increase.”

So how do you do it? Allen shared his top secrets.


(Photo: Dat Dog Menu/Flickr)

Optimize the design

“There’s a science to how the eye flows over the menu, how the brain interprets it,” said Allen. “With an understanding of that, you’re able to place items that are higher in profitability and communicate what the restaurant does that’s different, its signature items and culinary point of view — things that can help enhance the guest’s experience.”

Place high-profit items where the eye goes first. “Place items in a logical fashion so the menu becomes like a tour guide for the guest, and the most important items are not overlooked,” said Allen. “In a one-panel menu they’ll look at the middle first, then the top left and scan down to the bottom. These three areas are where you’ll find the dishes with the highest profit margins.”

Put a slightly more expensive item at the top. “[This] makes all the other dishes appear to offer more bang for your buck, giving the impression of getting a bargain and encouraging diners to spend more,” said Allen.

Consider your columns. The number of columns matters. “One column inflects a sense of sophistication and elegance. Two columns bring forth a sense of playfulness. Don’t overwhelm guests with hundreds of items. Listing just seven dishes in each section gives diners plenty of options without overwhelming them.”

Give important items breathing room. “You don’t want to create the menu equivalent of a kindergarten class shouting at the teacher to get attention,” said Allen. To make signature items stand out, have no more than one or two of them in each panel. “If it’s a copy-heavy menu, negative space will draw them in. By setting a signature item apart, with empty space around it, your guests’ attention will be drawn to it.”

Highlight your most profitable items. “Colors, a box, an icon, typography, size, spacing, and imagery can all be used to call attention to a particular item. We’re all conditioned to notice what’s different. Colors on a menu can affect what we order. Green implies the food is fresh, and orange stimulates the appetite. Yellow is a happy hue and is used to catch the diner’s attention. Red encourages action and is used to persuade us to buy the meals with the highest profit margins.”

Choose your words carefully. Describing items specifically and creatively can make them sound more enticing. Said Allen, “Words like ‘fresh,’ ‘line caught,’ ‘locally sourced,’ ‘free range’ and ‘organic’ will feed the imagination. But words become overused. The most frequently used word is ‘fresh.’ Some restaurateurs go overboard on the use of superlatives that can’t possibly be true, and diners will ignore them.

“Savvy restaurant owners write longer descriptions for the dishes they want to sell more of — items with the highest profit margins.”

Take advantage of technology. “There’s a rise in the use of digital menus, digital menu boards, ordering through tablets and self-ordering kiosks or mobile devices, which moves beyond print into video and animations,” Allen said. “They can save on printing costs and enrich the ability of a restaurant to merchandise their items.”

Pretend you’re a customer. Allen advised taking a picture of each item the way it’s served. “Then ask yourself: Do the items look like they are worth the price you are charging? Could a change in presentation justify an increase in price? Is there consistency with the overall look or does there seem to be a wide range or inconsistency in the price versus its presentation?

“You’ll be amazed at what you discover when you look at the entire menu collectively through the customer’s eyes.”


(Photo: Unsplash/Pixabay)

Highlight signature items, specials and cocktails

Your signature items and specials not only help define your brand, they also can increase your profits.

Emphasize what’s unique. “Signature items are important, and so are limited time and limited supply offers, which are a way of promoting certain items without having to change the whole menu. They also allow you to be adaptable in terms of ingredient availability and test things without having to make a full commitment to them. Specials also allow you to increase profitability: last night’s halibut is today’s fish soup.”

Maximize your drink profits. “You can use menus to promote signature cocktails, and also merchandise them with drink displays. Frosty mugs and coolers, pre-prepared cocktails, house-infused vodkas can be shown in back bars and you can have waiters tell guests about them.”


(Photo: coombesy/Pixabay)

Get the price right

It’s not just how you price items that matters; how you show the price is important, too.

Nest the price. “Stay away from typical Chinese menu pricing, where you see the dish on the left and the price on the right. Consumers will scan down the right to see what’s cheap. What you want to do instead is divide it up into columns and do what’s called nested pricing, where the price is nested within the description of the item. It gets the guest to read it so they determine whether to buy it not by the price but how it sounds.”

Lose the dollar signs. “Dollar signs have proven to actually create a negative physiological response of pain. Crafty restaurateurs remove currency signs from the menu to take the emphasis away from the cost of the items. Prices written out in letters can encourage diners to spend up to 30 percent more.”

Consider the competition’s pricing. Allen suggested studying your competitors’ menus carefully. Doing so “helps uncover strengths and weaknesses in your pricing plan, specifically in terms of the way your items are priced and presented,” he noted. “By doing this, you determine which items are most popular, which are most profitable, which need extra emphasis, and which need to be removed or replaced.” (If you decide to change your menu, read about how to do it successfully. And keep track of these menu trends.)

Keep your pricing competitive. “Diners know how your items match up value-wise against your competition, so keep your everyday items approximately $1 more or less. Items unique to your restaurant can be a little higher but also should not exceed the other items excessively.”

Don’t be a copycat. Don’t just copy competitors’ menus and try to compete at a lower price point. That’s a mistake, said Allen. “It’s better to differentiate your restaurant and offer signature items and have a bit more creativity built into it, which will allow for a higher margin.”

Don’t overprice familiar items. “If you have Bud Light on the menu, the consumer has a pretty good idea of what the price should be. If you have it for a quarter or a dollar more, they’ll think everything else on the menu is overpriced.”


(Photo: Unsplash/Pixabay)

Other menu mistakes to avoid

Getting the menu design right also means making the menu easy to read, interpret and handle.

Allen said common mistakes include print that is too small, menus that are too big to handle easily, foreign words that lack English translations and menus that look antiquated. Other bungles he noted are menus that use generic clip art or show photos that don’t match what the dish actually looks like.

A final no-no, he said, is a “misalignment of brand and menu.”

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