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Adding science to menu design

The first time I encountered menu engineering was as a marketing professional in 2012 when my restaurant marketing manager asked me if there was a way to design the menu that would encourage diners to choose one specific dish over another? Surely not, right? I naively assumed free will meant it was impossible to influence people, who simply chose whatever they fancied eating.

Eager to please my client, I began to research menu engineering as a concept and was immediately taken by the fascinating combination and multitude of factors at play – the phycology of decision-making, value perception, environment, human engagement, socio-economic factors, time, location and journey, to name a few. I quickly concluded that influencing a diner’s decision-making through menu design was not only possible but could be used as a sophisticated marketing tool that’s used all too rarely. I have since helped many restaurants design their menus to aid their customers’ decision-making process and increase their profit margin.

Fine-tuning a restaurant’s menu layout and design to optimise profitability requires consumer research. Gregg Rapp is leading the way in this type of research across the pond, helping some of the most iconic restaurant brands in the US engineer their menus to great effect. I recently interviewed Rapp to gain valuable insights into his background, methods and opinions. I started by asking how he became interested in menu engineering and when he first started to explore the concept.

He said: “The light bulb lit up when I was managing a restaurant and knew there was more to a menu than just putting it together. That’s when I started to study how newspapers get people to read them. Magazines back then were in the same space. I studied what typefaces and layouts are easiest on the eye. The answer is a serif typeface because it creates an imaginary line below the type. You can read nine more words per minute if the typeface is serif. It is also easier to read across shorter column widths than all the way across the page. If a newspaper wasn’t in columns, it would be very difficult to read.”

However, giving diners a menu that’s easy to read is only half the battle, we also need to make the decision-making process easier to provide a more relaxed and positive dining experience. This is where the psychology comes in!

We are unique individuals but often behave and make choices under pressure in a predictable and uniform way. That’s often because we’re looking for help or an easy option and plump for a suggestion, recommendation or familiarity to reach our decision faster. How many times have you sat with a menu in your hand and asked the person opposite: “What are you having?” A well-designed menu that considers every facet of choice psychologically will answer this question.

Innovative research techniques such as eye-tracking are currently being used to gain valuable insights and inform variable factors such as menu layout, size, colour and dish position.

Rapp said: “What we’re learning with eye-tracking is there’s a story behind every order. We interview a guest after we track their eyes and understand what they were thinking as they were ordering. Fascinating research!”

We know as individuals the story behind our order is driven by personal influences in our own lives – what we’ve already eaten that day, cost factors, past experiences with specific foods, our tendency to prefer familiarity or be experimental, and our general mood or mental state in that moment. These are just a handful of thousands of factors we subconsciously consider in a split second when making menu choices!

When thinking about menus in this way you can see why guests become confused, overwhelmed or even stressed when under pressure to select a dish. A great menu will enhance the dining experience by making guests feel confident, relaxed and assured they have chosen something they’ll love.

While customer experience is an important consideration when exploring menu engineering and certainly a benefit of the process, an increase in profitability is often the most decisive factor. Here the improvement can be dramatic. I asked Rapp about his most successful menu transformation – the results were astounding.

He said: “My best results were from a restaurant that had taken off all descriptions and had no categories on its original menu, with everything listed under “entrees”. I took the menu apart and put in categories – seafood, steak, barbecue, sandwiches, burgers. The menu resulted in an increase of $18,000 in new profit per month – and this was the average over six months.”

While these results may seem incredible, restaurants often see a significant increase in profits after an amended menu is introduced. The concept of more detailed menu analysis and design is definitely beginning to build traction as restaurants become more acutely aware of customers’ needs and marketing and operations roles become more collaborative.

Rapp featured on popular Channel 4 show Tricks Of The Restaurant Trade (series five, episode six), which is still available to watch on All 4.