Menu Engineering: Your Restaurant’s Secret Weapon

Martins Distribution

You could be under-utilizing your greatest marketing tool.

It’s an industry reality that costs go up, not down. The average profit margin for a restaurant is slim at just 6.2% (removing other costs). Add to this the current economic burden placed on many restaurants to keep their doors open and you’ve got the perfect motivation to innovate and stand out from the crowd. And while menu engineering may seem tedious, when you are competing with over 20,000 other restaurants in the Carolinas, every bit of ingenuity helps. (If you haven’t already, check out our July post in Martin’s Corner about creative ways to increase your sales.)

That’s where the importance of your menu comes in. Your menu can help you fight back against insolvency and uncertain times by making sure your best dishes get the spotlight and your money-makers are the first ones your guests see.

This science of cost study and design implementation make up what is known as menu engineering and it could be your greatest tool in getting an edge up on your competition and capitalizing on a free marketing tool.

Menu engineering may sound intimidating but really all it entails is some discipline, simple math and a willingness to identify opportunities and adapt to them. 

Let us explain.

Menu Engineering: The Breakdown

The concept of menu engineering has been around for a while. It was first talked about in the early seventies by the Boston Consulting Group as they began to work with businesses on segmenting their products to influence customer decision-making. Later on, the idea arrived to the restaurant industry through a professor at Michigan University.

Before getting into what exactly menu engineering is, let’s cover what it’s not: Increasing meal prices across the board, reducing the quality and cost of ingredients or trimming down portion sizes is not what this is about. 

Instead, menu engineering consists of identifying the inherent cost of your items, categorizing popularity and profitability, and implementing all of these findings into an intuitive, smart menu design. 

Going through this process will help your restaurant in more ways than one. Understanding your menu and how you are using your inventory will streamline your back of house operations. As you begin to determine which dishes are more profitable and promote those over others, your chefs will spend less time switching between dishes and more time to dedicate to quality.

In the same way, you can better utilize your inventory and reduce unnecessary expenses as you start to understand which ingredients are used across the same dishes. Perhaps you have a specific vendor for a certain ingredient that is only used in one of your less profitable dishes? Save time and money by clearing the clutter and focusing on what is already making your restaurant a success.

Here’s how to get started:

Follow These Steps

1. Cost

The first step in the process of re-engineering your menu is probably the most tedious. “Costing your menu” is exactly like it sounds. It involves breaking down each item on your menu into the cost of individual ingredients, to find out the real “price tag” for each dish. 

If you already have someone in charge of costing your menu, this should be the person involved in the engineering process as he or she will have the greatest knowledge about your dishes. 

But the reality is, most restaurants never take the time to cost their menu because it can be extremely time-consuming. However with this small sacrifice, you will reap the benefits of gaining more profitability out of your menu items.

2. Categorize

Now that you’ve laid out the specific cost for each of your menu items, it’s time to organize your data.

It’s important to group together similar menu items. For example, separate all of your entrees, appetizers, drinks, and desserts. You can then break down each grouping into sections. For entrees you can segment into meat entrees, seafood entrees and vegetarian entrees. Having this data in front of you in an organized manner will help you with this next step. 

There’s a common tool in the menu engineering world for placing your dishes into four categories: Stars, Plowhorses, Puzzles, Dogs.

Stars are your items that are frequently ordered and have a high profit margin.

Plowhorses are menu items with high popularity but cost more to make.

Puzzles are those items with high profitability but rarely ordered by guests.
Dogs are the items you probably need to reevaluate as they are costly to make and not very popular with your guests.

3. Design

Based on what you’ve determined as your Stars, Plowhorses, Puzzles and Dogs, it’s now time to translate that data into an effective design.

Focus on your Stars. They should be easily visible on your menu so guests can find them quickly. 

Your Plowhorses may need some revision. Is there a way to make this dish more profitable without sacrificing quality? Can you create a combo with a “star” drink? Try to find a way to boost the profitability of these items.

For your Puzzles, consider how you can get them more attention. This may mean placing them in a more prominent spot on your menu, utilizing social media to promote them, or even being open to lowering the cost – greater popularity with your guests will make up the difference.

Finally your Dogs are dishes you may want to rethink on your menu. At the very least you can put them in less conspicuous places on your menu to leave room for those more profitable and popular dishes.

Menu engineering is a science in itself. Professional menu engineer Greg Rapp helps his clients determine the best placement and design of menu items through costing, categorizing and other techniques to get the most out of your menu.

He developed special glasses that track where a viewer’s gaze is drawn to on a page, effectively proving theories of where the eye goes first. (Hint: it’s the top right corner!) He also suggests that highlighting menu items in a border or shadow will help to automatically draw your guest’s eye to that dish. Here are some other menu design tips to follow:

  • There are layouts to avoid, like listing prices down one side of the menu. This causes the customer to make a decision based on price rather than the dish. 
  • Work on your descriptions to make them short but impactful – don’t just list the ingredients. 
  • Focus your most effective descriptions with your higher priced items. 
  • And finally, don’t forget to keep in mind proper spacing, leaving enough room for all of your menu items to have their place.

Following these design tips can help increase the overall price tag of your menu, without actually having to increase prices. All this to say, the process of menu engineering falls short if your findings are not directly implemented into the design and layout of your menu.

4. Test

You might not get it right the first time. That’s why menu engineering is a process, not an end-goal but rather a continuous practice. It’s suggested that a successful restaurant should perform this study at least twice a year but if you are able to find a rhythm of evaluating your menu seasonally or even once a month, even better!

One way to know if your new design is working, aside from analysing your profits, is to ask your staff. Your waiters are the best source of information as they are the ones directly interacting with your customers. Ask your team if they’ve sensed a change in customer ordering habits or have any feedback from guests on the re-designed menu.

Still not convinced?

Menu engineering can reap more benefits than just increasing your restaurant’s profitability (though it’s important to note here that an effective process can help yield revenue increases of 10%-15%). Marketing is a great reason to put some TLC into your menu design.

A well-engineered menu can spark conversation amongst your guests, garnering free publicity. Rather than marketing for marketing’s sake, you can use this essential piece of your business to capitalize on spreading the word about your best dishes!

We’re not going to lie, menu engineering takes a little bit of work. But If you’re willing to put in the time and effort on the front end, you’ll reap the benefits in the long run. We definitely recommend menu engineering as a rhythm and practice to implement in your restaurant.

Has menu engineering worked for your restaurant? Are you interested in finding out more? Make sure to connect with us on social media and let us know about your experiences. We love sharing inspiration with the Queen City restaurant community!

5 Creative Ways to Increase Your Restaurant’s Sales

Martins Distribution

There’s been a surge of creativity and resourcefulness in the restaurant industry. In our Charlotte community alone, we’ve seen businesses pulling out all the stops to keep their customers coming back.

Sparks of hope in the midst of what have been strange and difficult times have come in the form of ingenious strategies some restaurants are implementing in order to increase sales. 

Are you tired of just trying to survive and needing some fresh ideas to generate revenue? Keep reading!

1. Adapt your Catering Menu

Catering is undoubtedly taking a hit but adapting your idea of catered events can increase your sales. People are still yearning for social connection so market your catering platters as Family Packages and target small at-home gatherings. Also keep in mind that essential businesses still need to provide food for tired workers and this is the perfect time to offer up your large combos as the perfect lunch option.

2. Create a Signature Dish

There’s no better time to create a signature than now – it’s time to get creative! Take advantage of the summer months by using fresh, local ingredients and experiment with a surplus of ingredients you may have in your inventory. Utilize your social media platforms to invite your customers to come in to order or get curbside pickup of this special dish they have yet to try!

3. Neighborhood Nights

A great idea we’ve seen implemented by some national restaurants is “Neighborhood Nights.” The concept entails promoting a specific night of the week to encourage your local community to place orders on one of your special dishes (or try a theme like hamburger, or taco night), and setting up safe stations where neighbors can pick up their orders. Market it as a special community night and make a point to reconnect with your customers!

4. Enhance your Outdoor Space

Speaking of outdoor dining, it’s time to spruce up that patio. Many states are making the process of accessing outdoor dining permits easier. If you already have a patio, check your local regulations to see if your property is eligible for expansion. And while you’re at it, add some special ambiance with festive lighting, greenery and even throw in some live music! Returning to regular indoor dining is still a ways off so it makes sense to invest in your outdoor space.

5. Launch a Customer Loyalty Program

This time has brought out the best in customer loyalty with many restaurants surviving based on gift card purchases and takeout orders from their regular diners. Repeat customers are your most valuable clientele so it’s time to reward those loyal few and encourage their continued business. Try out a punch card system and get creative with the rewards. Give incentives for every 10 takeout orders or set up a reward for a certain number of family packages ordered per month.

At Martin’s Distribution, we have always strived to continuously improve our services and the quality of goods that we offer our customers and during these challenging times, we’ve had to get more creative, too. Our desire is to spark some hope and ingenuity in the Queen City restaurant industry as we walk through this together and inspire one another. 

Now that innovation is our new essential tool for increasing revenue – have you used or seen another creativity strategy for boosting sales? Find us on social media, leave a comment, and let us know!

Is there hope for restaurants?

Martins Distribution

The restaurant industry is experiencing one of its greatest challenges yet. We’ve created this space with the purpose of sharing from our experience of working with more than 200 restaurants. We desire that Martin’s Corner be a tool to spread hope and practical steps for the benefit of other businesses.

COVID-19 has dealt one of the biggest blows in history to the restaurant industry and businesses have been scrambling to understand what the future of the market will look like. From farmers, truckers, and manufacturers to distributors and restaurants – the entire food chain supply has felt the effects. But it’s not all bad news.

The saying “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” is particularly applicable in this situation. In response to the crisis, the industry has seen an explosion in innovation and creativity as restaurants have pulled out all the stops to stay afloat and weather this storm.

So how will the industry bounce back in the long term? Here’s our prediction.

Martin's Distributor

Restaurants are an integral part of culture

First we must look at the role restaurants play not just in the economy but in culture as well. According to head chef Dan Barber at two-Michelin star restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the importance of restaurants goes beyond more than just numbers. “Restaurants have a cultural imprint on what it means to be alive. Restaurants are this place of connection and community and excitement and decadence that is very powerful.”

With that said, the restaurant industry cannot just disappear. It’s a part of our cultural fabric. Will it look different? Most definitely. But it will survive.

As much as to-go orders and take out menus have gained in popularity and technology is helping keep businesses afloat, there’s no denying that the great challenge ahead is recovering what restaurants do best – bringing people together over food.

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The importance of technology in moving forward

One of the most important factors moving forward will be implementing strategies to make the customer feel safe. Without a doubt, an essential piece of this puzzle is technology. 

Apart from systematic hygiene practices, taking customers’ temperatures, and the use of personal protective equipment for staff, digital tools will be what gives diners the extra confidence they need to return.

 Mobile applications for deliveries and online ordering systems will continue to grow in popularity with take out culture still being the easiest and safest way for consumers to get access to their favorite dishes.

 But technology will also need to become a part of the dining experience.Tablets on every table, digital menus and mobile payment options will become the new norm.

 Transparency through the use of technology will also be key. Customers will want to be able to see the path their food takes to get to them. Farm to fork traceability (the ability for consumers to track where their food comes from) will grow in popularity as food safety remains a number one priority. 

Even social media will play a bigger role in the industry moving forward. Instagram and Facebook were essential for restaurants maintaining contact with their customers during quarantine and will only grow in importance looking ahead. 

The return to the regular dining experience will be slow but in the meantime, it will be important for restaurants to continue finding points of connection with customers through social media: offering behind the scenes looks into their kitchens, engaging in conversations with followers and advertising giveaways and to-go specials.

 Robert Irvine, the star of Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible, has been developing a system that he says will be essential for restaurants to follow in order to make it out of this crisis. 

“We’ve got to put systems into these places and restaurants that hold the owners or the manager, or both, accountable for their actions and their employees. We need to bring back consumer confidence for the guests, but also the employees that work there. They’re humans too. If they don’t feel confident, they’re not coming to work.”

It all boils down to consumer confidence.

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The solution means coming together

This is uncharted territory for all of us in the restaurant industry. But apart from technology and increased hygiene, one thing will be crucial in finding future success.

 We as an industry will need to work together – everyone in the supply chain, from farmers to food distributors to restaurants. Now is not the time for competition. It’s time for sharing ideas, successes and failures. 

Success will be measured not by one restaurant that does it right but by an entire industry coming together and rebuilding the cultural fabric of dining together. 

The way we will achieve consumer confidence is if customers regain trust in the industry as a whole. If they see us working together to provide safe environments and developing best practices.

 In our next Martin’s Corner, we’ll take a closer look at what one restaurant is doing to win back its customers. So stay posted! 

This is just our opinion. We’d love to hear your thoughts on how you think the industry will change in the aftermath of COVID-19!