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Behind the Line: Profit in print? ­­That’s the case with menus

Written correctly, your menu is your best ambassador

Effective menus need to be a brand ambassador and silent salesperson.  - Photo by Melissa Wood
By Lauren Kramer
February 01, 2014

Each restaurant has a brand ambassador, customer service agent and silent salesperson wrapped into a single document — the menu. Experts say the menu is a far cry from a mere list of items for sale. Rather, the design of a menu influences guest expectations and affects their purchasing behavior. Restaurateurs who understand this can use their menu’s design to increase operational efficiency, profitability and improve customer satisfaction. 

So says Sybil Yang, assistant professor at San Francisco State University’s Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management

“How a menu item is named or labeled can have a profound effect on how it’s perceived,” she says. “A highly descriptive name can help create value by priming a guest with positive effects, subconsciously seeding a guest with an idea, emotion or concept.” 

Brian Wansink, a researcher of food psychology and consumer behavior at Cornell University, found that when used sparingly, there are several types of descriptive labels that can increase demand for an item and improve a guest’s attitude toward it. Geographic references imply authenticity, history and expertise, particularly when they refer to a region that is well known for a particular food, such as Alaska crab or Maine lobster. Sensory references, such as “mom’s homemade buttery warm apple crumble” create a virtual experience by evoking any of the five senses and using them to build anticipation. And nostalgic references create positive emotion by referring to people, situations, locations or occasions — such as a menu item titled “Date Night Lobster for Two.”

The copy on a menu should be written by an individual who is the heart and soul of that particular restaurant, says Gregg Rapp, a menu engineer from Palm Springs, Calif. 

“I see it all the time where a restaurant chain has an agency copywriter write the menu and when it’s done, they always say, ‘Where is this restaurant? It’s not ours!’ The reason is that the copy is very personal and needs to come from someone who knows the food well.”

Rapp’s specialty is helping restaurateurs give their food personality on the menu, so that it stands out from other restaurants. If it doesn’t and menus look all the same, then the food becomes a commodity and price becomes more important, he says. 

“I believe every item on the menu should have a back story — where did it come from and why was it put on the menu? Getting it out of the commodity makes that food different and better, meaning you can charge a higher price for it because it has better value,” says Rapp.

The risk, of course, is overwhelming the guest with a menu that reads more like a book. Menu engineering involves providing enough of the right kind of information about the menu items you value most, in other words, your stars. But most menus are not engineered, Rapp says. In a seafood restaurant, for example, it makes no sense to spend a paragraph describing battered fish and chips, likely one of the least profitable items on a seafood menu, while supplying just a single line descriptor on the $33 grilled salmon. 

“Wouldn’t you rather describe your salmon and take that $33 up in value and down in price in your customer’s head?” he asks.

Rapp’s clients have included Cook’s Lobster House on Bailey Island, Maine, where the lobstermen’s floats are visible in the bay just beyond the restaurant. 

“I took those individualized floats and put them on the menu with the lobstermen’s names next to them, so it shows who they are,” he explains. That resulted in those lobstermen bringing their best lobsters to Cook’s Lobster House, and the products having better value for the guests. “The lobstermen also brought their friends to the restaurant to show everyone their names on the menu,” he recalls. “We became their favorite restaurant.”

Menu engineering is about highlighting the items you need to upsell, not the ones you don’t. To know which items should be highlighted, restaurant operators need to know their costing and figure out the profit on each item. That takes time and though Rapp offers it as a service, he doesn’t recommend outsourcing this crucial task because it’s critical that the restaurateur know this information to help operational efficiency. “If you do the costing, it’s in your head,” he insists. “But if I do the costing, then I get all the education.” 

Once you know which menu items are your star performers, you have to position them accurately. Rapp believes the prime real estate on a menu is the upper right hand side. That’s where guests’ eyes go first, and that’s where he puts the most profitable items when designing a menu. Then he adds mouth-watering descriptions. “They alone can boost sales by up to 30 percent,” he insists.

Maryland-style crab cakes are an example. With a description such as “made by hand with sweet jumbo crabmeat, a touch of mayonnaise, our secret blend of seasonings and golden cracker crumbs for a rich, tender crab cake,” the dish sounds more delicious than it would if Maryland-style crab cakes were the only descriptor. 

“Your goal when describing a dish is for the guest to say, ‘Oh — that sounds good!’” says Ezra Eichelberger, professor of hospitality and service management at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. “Inspire their taste buds and make their mouths water by using the items that create the flavors: rosemary, tarragon-cream sauce, morel mushrooms, brown butter, mesquite-grilled and slow-roasted, for example.”

Highlight your stars and you immediately have more control in increasing sales of the more profitable menu items and reducing the sales of loss leaders. But definitely get a few good copy editors to read through your menu prior to printing it, as nothing churns a guest’s stomach faster than a typo or misspelled word. 

“When guests see mistakes like missing hyphens, ill-placed apostrophes and misspelled words, they plant an unsettling seed in the mind that the chef cannot cook,” Eichelberger says. “It’s unfair to think that, but those mistakes create doubt in the chef’s attention to detail.” 

Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in Richmond, British Columbia

February 2014 - SeaFood Business   

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