The beginnings of Earl Grey & Sichuan Peppercorn Duck. Photograph by Chris Montgomery
I was recently approached by a publisher to put together a writeup about best menu R&D practices for a restaurant handbook. I'm all about spreading as much information as possible, so I've put together a condensed version of my section for public use below. Please feel free to contact me if you have questions or would like some guidance on your restaurant concept - I'm happy to help you navigate through every section and provide working examples. Each of these points are no small task in and of itself!
1. The menu should be well-suited for the kitchen space itself.
A common misstep is to have a menu built out without regards to the kitchen design & layout. Especially with new restaurants, many times things change within the construction schedule, but the changes are not accounted for within the menu itself. A menu with baked-in operational issues results in low-quality end product, which means unhappy customers and exhausted BOH/FOH staff. In short, it is important to marry the kitchen and menu design.
2. Each menu item should require the minimum amount of unique SKU’s possible.
No customer wants to see an overt distribution of a few base raw ingredients across the whole menu, but restaurants should be wary of menu items that need more than three unique inputs if they cannot be used elsewhere. Cross-utilization is a mix of art and logic, with the end goal to be unnoticeable. In addition to efficiency in terms of prep and kitchen operations, having a menu that cross-utilizes ingredients also increases your purchase volume of the same item, lowering per unit costs with higher turnover per item and thus, fresher quality.
3. Keep the menu short and simple.
Giving a customer options is very necessary, but too many options can also be crippling. The rise and success of fast-casual brands is a testament to the fact a limited menu array can be both satisfying to the customer and profitable for the business. A small number of dishes, however, does not mean a narrow range of offerings. Especially if you have a few “standout” plates, you don’t want a clutter of other options to shadow that top choice and detract from your cooks’ repetitions of making (and nailing) that dish.
4. Menus should be designed with a revenue and/or cost objective in mind.
Every menu needs a clear goal. Whether this means you’re aiming for an average check size of $X dollars per person or you want a certain percentage of your orders to be for menu items of X% COGS, these goals must be discussed in tandem with the menu and implemented as a priority. If you have a beverage program, a great way to capitalize on this to have suggested pairings for both the savory and sweet portions of the meal.
5. The restaurant and menu should have a theme that matches the target audience.
To tie all of these points together, it’s important the menu accurately reflects the theme of the restaurant and that theme precisely attracts the main customer demographic. Diners can feel when aspects of any business – restaurants or otherwise – are not cohesive and this will cause a mental friction and a dislike of your place they “just can’t quite put their finger on”. The menu, ambiance, service, food, and overall design needs to marry together into a defined brand the customer can easily recall in crisp, uniform detail.
Combining all factors between food menu, BOH operations, the bar program, FOH service, and interior design is no small task. To set up a restaurant for success, it’s important to build the right foundations to put your best “face” forward for each aspect of your business. Thinking critically about your menu is the first place to begin implementing a sustainable restaurant that will last through many seasons to come.