The menu used in your restaurant is a secret weapon of profitability. If designed correctly, the guest can be encouraged to increase dining frequency, spend more or less money or time on certain visits, and receive powerful reinforcement about your brand. In this article, we’ll explore some of the fundamentals of great menu design, which can often result in sales increases of 5-10%. For a $1,000,000 restaurant that’s $50,000-$100,000 per year!


The outcome of any menu is reinforcement of the brand message.  Look at your menu and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is my brand message clear?
  • Does my menu position me as traditional or contemporary, fine dining or casual?
  • Is my pricing competitive and price/value fair?
  • Am I proud of my menu?
  • Does my menu have enough or too much choice?
  • Is there enough differentiation from other concepts?
  • Does my menu reflect the relevance of the times?
  • Does my menu make my mouth water and create cravability?
  • Will the guest feel better after reading my menu?

The goal for any restaurant should be to become number one in its space and create an insurmountable lead. By answering the questions above you will have an easier time articulating what “space” you wish to occupy. Once the brand position is clearly articulated, the message is more easily delivered.

Eye Patterns

Brands must be consistent, through and through, and the menu is a key factor in determining messaging. The challenge is that research finds the average consumer spends only 109 seconds with a menu.

Think about a typical visit to a restaurant. The table is set with silver and drinks. Conversation is good, and along comes the server to take the order. The guest quickly looks down at the menu and then responds, “Just give us a minute or two.” The server, anxious to receive the order, responds typically with, “No problem, take your time.” A few minutes later, once the conversation is started again at the table, the server arrives to take the order. What happened during that time? The guest scanned the menu with a predictable eye pattern observed by Gallup in 1987. Eye patterns vary between a one, two and three panel menu.

One Panel Menu

Two Panel Menu

Three Panel Menu

Category Management

The guest can find what he/she wants quickly with proper categorization of the menu. Separate the menu with categories of at least four items to a max of six items. For example, Pasta-list four to six, Meats-list four to six, Seafood-list four to six, etc. The more categories that are listed on the menu the better. The reason is lists of data are scanned with typically the top one item (maybe two) and the bottom item being the best sellers on the list. Make sure the items that highlight your brand and/or profitability are listed in the top and bottom spot of each list.

Highlighting: Boxes & Icons

While the guest typically scans the menu in a predictable fashion, one way of attracting the eye to a particular item is to place a box around or icon next to an item. Use these sparingly throughout the menu as they act as a magnet to the item. For example:

While a guest, at first glance, is likely to focus on Item #3 in the list on the left, he/she is quickly pulled to Item #5 because of the box. The “routine” pattern of glancing up to Item #2 is broken and you’re on your way to steering the guest around the menu. The reader is pulled to #2 with the icon in the list on the right. The additional benefit by using boxes and icons is they break a long list into more than one list, thus increasing readership of that particular category. If you have a pasta restaurant and want more focus on that section of the menu, put a box around your favorite item with the best brand/profitability combination in that category and you will likely sell more of that item while increasing focus on the category as a whole.


It’s important to send the right message with your pricing. It’s never a good idea to put the highest price item on the top of each category list. That technique will be seen and not appreciated by the guest. What best reflects your brand and profitability should be on the top and bottom of the list not just profitability. Keep your prices in line with the competition unless you are a price leader in your category. While keeping your prices in line with the competition, list your prices “out of line” and next to the end of the item description in the same size font as the description.

For example:

Chicken Dijon
Bleu Cheese, Prosciutto  $13.95

Pasta Primavera
Penne, Asparagus, Mushroom  $14.95

One additional technique for pricing is to provide portion size choices to the guest such as large and small and “squeeze” the prices together. The most typical example is soup. List your bowl of soup slightly higher than your cup of soup. For example, Cup $3.95 Bowl $5.50. The guest will look at the larger portion as a value, hence increasing sales. The common mistake is to double the smaller price or cut the larger price in half. On a recent menu-engineering task, Ribs were listed at $19.95 for ½ Rack and $31.95 for the full Rack. With a reduction of price of the full Rack to $29.95, sales for that item increased 17% putting incremental margin to the bottom line. Sure there is a loss of the $2.00 in selling price but an increase of $7.00 of margin on 17% more sales on a high profit item. Food cost went up but so did the bottom line.

Descriptions: A Word about Wording

The temptation when describing a menu item is to describe the item in its entirety. Remember, the guest is scanning and more words take longer to read and slow down the ordering process with the ultimate result of decreased workforce productivity. If you list a Chicken item in a category, the guest is reasonably sure there is chicken in the recipe; there is no reason to list chicken when describing the dish. Keep your descriptions short and create curiosity and cravability. The best thing you can hear is, “Oh…that sounds great,” over and over again. Fonts should be easy to read and large enough for your target guest. Remember Fonts represent branding statements. You would never want an elegant font on a menu for a diner.

When designing or redesigning your menu, practice the fundamentals listed in this article. With the proper mix of each you’ll experience increasing sales and profitability and finally get that vacation you’ve been counting on.

For more information on improving profitability and driving sales, contact AMP Services at Rick Braa is the founder of AMP Services, a Seattle restaurant accounting and consulting firm specializing in helping companies grow profitability.