6 Menu Design Tips to Increase Profits

While many operators think of advertising as something done to draw in customers, marketing isn’t finished once those customers are in the door. Once you’ve seated your customers, you put one of your most powerful marketing tools in their hands: your restaurant’s menu. An oft-cited statistic states that customers only spend an average of 109 seconds perusing a menu, giving you a brief window of opportunity to direct their attention to your most profitable dishes. The way your menu is designed can have a direct effect on your restaurant’s bottom line.

1. Know Your Dishes

The first step in designing a menu is to know how much each of your dishes costs to make. This is called ‘costing a menu‘ and allows you to easily determine which items are the most lucrative. Low-cost items with high profitability should top the list of items you want to highlight on your menu. Knowing which items are the most profitable along with the sales volume of each may even lead you to cutting some items off the menu altogether, which streamlines your options, makes customers’ decisions easier, and improves your menu’s readability.

2. Create a Cohesive Experience

Your customers have seen your logo, décor, and advertising long before they ever encounter your menu, so they should already have an idea of what your theme is. If your restaurant has been conveying a formal dining atmosphere and you hand a customer a laminated paper menu with poor design, they may begin to doubt the restaurant’s quality. Similarly, if you’re a family-friendly fast casual café with fancy leather-bound menus, your customers may feel misled about the economy of their dining choice. Keeping the material of the menu in line with the expectations your customers have built about your restaurant is important.

Aside from the material of the menu, the design can also be made to fit in with your restaurant’s theme. Using colors, fonts, and textures that fit in with your logo and décor are all great ways to create a cohesive experience.

3. Drop the Dollar Sign

For years, the traditional way of listing prices was beside the dish’s name, after a row of periods so that all of the prices were in a neat little column down the right side of the page. However, this design is a relic of the bygone days of typewriters, before technology made menu design so much easier.

“That menu was introduced before modern typesetting. It was a way of keeping the page looking properly formatted,” says restaurant consultant Aaron Allen.

This design leads the customer to price-shop, scanning for the cheapest options before they even look at the dish names. Instead, make use of nested pricing, which has the price listed at the end of each dish’s description.

In addition to nesting the prices, you may also want to consider dropping the dollar sign. A study by Cornell University in 2009 found that people spent more money on menus where prices were listed without the dollar sign.

4. Keep it Simple

The last thing you want to do is overwhelm your customers. Too many dishes can make decision-making difficult, and an abundance of colors and fonts can be distracting and difficult to read. While you can certainly use different fonts and colors to draw attention to certain dishes, experts recommend using no more than three fonts per menu. Keep the number of colors you use to a minimum and use color theory to incorporate shades that evoke certain emotions or reactions in your customers.

In place of using a ton of different fonts and colors to highlight menu items, consider using boxes, frames, and lines – simple shapes that attract attention. Negative space is one of the most attention-grabbing things on any busy page, so set menu items with the highest margins in their own space.

5. Descriptions and Definitions

When you describe the dishes you will be serving, stay away from superlatives such as ‘World’s Best’ – in most cases, it’s not quantifiably true and will lead to your customers mistrusting all the other information on your menu. However, an enticing description is important and should go beyond the basic ingredients. Make use of adjectives such as ‘fresh,’ ‘wild-caught,’ or ‘housemade’ to draw your customers in and help create a visual. However, be sure to only use descriptors that are actually true, as customers are not quick to forgive deception.

In addition to evocative descriptions, if any of your items are difficult to pronounce or use ingredients that customers may not be familiar with, consider adding a small glossary. Customers are much more likely to order an item if they don’t have to question the server about its contents or worry about mispronouncing it.

6. Product Placement

Illustration of Golden Triangle on a menu

Even with all the psychological tricks in the world, your customers’ eyes are still likely to be drawn first to the same area of the menu every time. Studies have shown that most customers look at the middle of the page, then the top right, then over to the top left, creating what is called the Golden Triangle. Putting your items with the highest margins in these three locations can substantially increase their sales.

Within each section, you can also use the prices of dishes to determine their placement. Generally, the top two dishes are ordered the most, with the dish at the very bottom of the list coming in third. This means you can place your dishes with the highest margins in those slots and usually see a sales bump. Alternatively, some professionals recommend placing the most expensive dish in each section at the top. Customers will see the high-priced item first, and everything else in the list will seem economical in comparison.

Where should desserts go? An entirely separate menu, Culinary Institute of America Instructor Ezra Eichelberger maintains. If a customer sees a dessert he wants at the beginning of a meal, he may decide to forego an appetizer to justify ordering it. Offering a separate menu with desserts at the end of the meal increases your chances of raking in the profits from both appetizers and desserts. Additionally, having desserts on a smaller menu eliminates the need for keeping large, bulky menus on the table throughout the meal, which can not only be a hassle but also open the door to cross-contamination and bacterial growth.

Courtney Barkley
Courtney Barkley

Courtney Barkley has lived in nearly as many southeastern states as most Americans have probably visited, settling in East Tennessee in early 2013. She and her husband Thomas were married during ShadoCon 2012 – an anime, gaming, and comics convention – in a ceremony that featured a reading about dinosaurs in love from a friend dressed as Doctor Who. She spends her free time chasing her brilliant and imaginative son Nathan, hanging out with friends, binge-watching shows, playing video games, and keeping up with the characters of the Marvel Universe. And, any chance she gets, she sneaks off to Florida to visit friends and the happiest place on earth – Disney World.