How to Test Your Restaurant Menu

Use these strategies to make sure your menu passes 6 key tests before opening for business.
menu-dumplings
With careful planning, you can create a cost-effective menu that will have customers lining up at the door. (Photo: leungchopan/Shutterstock)

You’ve put a lot of thought into your menu. After all, your food is the whole point of your restaurant. But will that menu work in the real world — and give you a profit — when it’s time to execute the dishes day in and day out for hungry crowds?

To find out, test it prior to opening so you can fix any menu mistakes before they cost you big.

Related: NCR Silver’s Guide to Starting a Restaurant

Criteria for a successful menu

Your menu should meet a handful of make-or break criteria according to Alan Someck, restaurant consultant and Restaurant and Culinary Management instructor at Institute of Culinary Education.

Does it match the concept? If your concept involves selling organic tacos to a young, eco-inclined crowd, the other items on your menu should appeal to that crowd, too. “Every item should in some way enhance and reinforce your brand, your marketing and your message,” said Someck. If your marketing messages promise certain nutritional or dietary features, make sure your menu delivers on them. To keep your menu focused, don’t hesitate to keep it small. A small menu is easier for everyone, including guests.

Is it balanced? “Menu balance is really important,” Someck noted. “Look at it from the point of view of the customer coming in and how they order and what they eat and what goes well together.” If you include side dishes that pair naturally with main dishes (think French fries with hamburgers and guacamole with Mexican bowls), then “all of a sudden the check builds up because you’ve constructed a well-balanced menu.”

Does it taste good? Taste is the most important factor, said Someck. Establish who will decide whether the taste is right or not. “It could be the owner the and chef together, it could be the owner, chef and consultant, it could be the partners or some of the investors whose taste you trust.”

pasta-ingredients

When crafting your menu, make sure all ingredients are easily accessible and within your price range. (Photo: Shaiith/Shutterstock)

Are the ingredients available? If you’ve centered your concept around organic, local chicken, for example, is enough of that product available? Calculate how much you’ll need based on your projected guest counts and a guesstimate of what percent of customers will order the chicken.

Can you afford it? How much will those organic chickens cost you, and can you really afford them? “If your financial model doesn’t make sense, you’re going to go out of business,” said Someck. According to him, a dish’s ingredients should cost 30 percent or less of its price point. “If it starts creeping above that, I don’t care how good your food tastes, it’s just not going to work.” The more you buy (assuming you can sell it), the better off you’ll be in terms of cost. “The advantage of volume is more purchasing power. Every time you lower that percent it goes right to your bottom line.”

Related: How to Optimize Your Menu to Lower Your Food Costs

Can your line cooks execute it easily? “There’s a big difference between cooking a great meal at home and cooking restaurant food. The knowledge of restaurant equipment and cooking in terms of volume adds a whole other dimension to things,” said Someck. Look at your menu with this question in mind: “Can a group of people who are not necessarily super high-skilled produce this in a systematic, consistent way?” If not, you may need to make some tweaks. Because labor is so expensive and good line cooks are so hard to come by, “people are trying to make the process of producing their food simpler and simpler.”

The testing process

You might think your menu is ready to go as is. But usually, testing will reveal some hidden flaws. “Often in this process, your menu items may change,” said Someck.

Testing can help you fine-tune your offerings and is best done before you open. “The last thing you want to do is do your menu testing while you’re paying an enormous amount of rent,” Someck added. Do as much testing ahead of time as possible, perhaps even while your restaurant is still under construction.

There are lot of ways to test a menu, Someck said. Here are four.

chef-consultant

Hire a chef consultant to test out your new menu and help create an efficient workflow process. (Photo: oneinchpunch/Shutterstock)

Hire a chef consultant. Someck’s recommendation: “Hire a chef consultant, who helps you navigate all those waters to come up with a final product that you’re happy with.” He said for sole owners, it’s money well spent. A chef consultant “can look at an item, look at how it’s produced and what goes into it and determine the level of skill needed to produce it — and help you create a system for doing it and help you hire those people and train them.” He or she can also advise on ingredient sources and kitchen design. Of course, if you’re an owner and a chef is one of your partners, “you hopefully will feel more comfortable giving them a little more power and control.”

Open a pop-up restaurant for a week. This is an affordable way to get feedback on your food from the public. Find a restaurant space you can rent for cheap (in many localities there are plenty of empty restaurants), advertise and market your pop-up, then get ready to gather reactions. “A lot of existing restaurants practice their new concepts that way. They do pop-up restaurants to test their menu out,” said Someck.

Host dinner parties at your home. Someck said he knows one person who did this for several months every two weeks in his apartment, inviting 16 people at most and changing the menu often. “Before he opened up his restaurant he was able to raise $25,000 in Kickstarter money in nine days just because so many people had tried it and were interested.”

Related: How to Finance a Restaurant Startup through Crowdfunding

Hold a soft opening when you’re ready. Some restaurants do this as much as month before their grand opening. A soft opening can involve hosting a dinner at the restaurant for family and friends and/or opening the restaurant to the public without any press or other fanfare to put the menu and your systems through their paces while the pressure is still relatively low.

A restaurant’s success depends on many things — a great concept, an effective business plan, a realistic budget that accounts for all your costs, a good location, rent you can afford, the right marketing and yes, a menu that appeals to your target audience and that you can execute on budget with the staff you planned for.

Your first menu won’t be your last — you have many recipes up your sleeve (or your chef does), and trial and error will show you which ones sell best. Plus, you’ll probably want to add specials and change the menu a little or a lot with the seasons. But you get only one chance to make a first impression, and precious little time to start turning a profit. So make sure when you open, you’re putting your best food forward.

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