Advice to Develop & Improve Your Restaurant Menu

To help you make the best decisions for your restaurant, we spoke with culinary consultant Jenny Dorsey on what it takes for a restaurant to have a killer brand, unique menu, top-notch support staff and a secure financial plan when owning a restaurant.

This is part two in a four-part series about restaurant management.

In part one of this four-part series, Dorsey gives us inside tips on what makes a high-quality restaurant brand. In this second part of the series, she shares her insights into developing and improving your restaurant menu.

First and foremost, your menu should reflect the brand you spent so much time refining.

“Be focused on what you’re doing,” Dorsey says. “What I see most frequently is menus are all over the place. Diners get confused and then they’re less attracted to dining at your restaurant. They don’t understand what you’re trying to be. With a million places to choose from in a city, people are not going to choose a restaurant that’s all over the place.”

It’s important to always keep in mind the concept you want to convey to your customers and the type of people who would dine there. If you want to be an authentic Thai restaurant, don’t include dishes that are commonly Americanized Thai, such as crab rangoon. If you want to be known for your killer sushi, don’t highlight chicken karaage and udon noodles on your menu. And if you want to feature Mediterranean dishes from Greece, don’t include a hamburger and grilled cheese sandwich.

Next to ensuring your menu meshes with the dining concept of your brand, the second most important factor in building a restaurant menu is pricing, which Dorsey calls both a science and an art.

Pricing a Restaurant Menu: The Science

Specific food costs and line item costs determine the menu. Dorsey says a general cost isn’t good enough. Be specific on food costs because your restaurant’s bottom line depends on them. In general, sit-down restaurants have a 30-35 percent raw food cost or lower.

Next, are line item costs. Determine which are high-margin items and highlight them on the menu in a way that attracts focus and sales. The high-selling, low-margin menu items might need tweaking to increase profits. On the other hand, you also want to find any low-margin, low-sales items on your menu. Decide if you should improve them or remove them.

“You have to dive deep and look at how your numbers play out,” Dorsey says. “Do some sensitivity analysis on how you think people will move with your menu and price changes. Know your itemized costs as well as how your customers react to certain price points. Also think about how you are going to make your splurge items work. Maybe you’ll take a small hit on margins, but it’ll be an amazing item that’ll be good PR, then it’s worth it.”

Pricing a Restaurant Menu: The Art

While food costs are the science of creating a great restaurant menu, there is also an art to it. Dorsey says to first create a menu only of food and line item costs. After, sit back and take an objective look at how your menu feels. Are the appetizers too pricey? Is there an entree that stands out in price, but doesn’t seem worth the cost? Would you sell more martinis if they were $9 instead of $15 a piece? You also want to compare your menu to your competition — do you want to undercut them and be slightly more affordable, or do you want to be slightly more expensive and come across as higher end than your competition?

Finally, Dorsey has a few tips for creating the perfect restaurant menu besides pricing. In general, she says skip photos on your menu because it sets up unrealistic expectations for your diners when the food doesn’t appear like the professional photo shoot. She also recommends including one dish for pescatarians, vegetarians and Gluten-free eaters. And she stresses that you cannot make sweeping price changes like increasing everything on your menu by $1 or whimsical menu changes based on gut feelings.

“All menu changes are based on data, not random changes,” Dorsey says. “If you’re a general manager, and you think the chicken dish is the best selling entree, you might be right or you might be wrong. Unless you can back it up with data, you shouldn’t make the change.”

To ensure you’re backing your menu changes up with data, make sure you analyze weekly food sales for at least a month after rolling out new menu changes. Understand the best sellers and low sellers, and anything that was numerously sent back to the kitchen. With an eye on data, food costs and your restaurant brand, you should be setup to create a menu that makes your restaurant a huge success.

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