Restaurant menus curate a love affair we never tire of experiencing

Open a restaurant’s menu and you’re likely to fall in love.

It might be because you immediately spotted that tantalizing crème brûlée French toast in the upper righthand corner highlighted in a cheery orange box; it might be that the font choice drew you in. Or it could be a story the menu shared about the business’s efforts toward ocean sustainability. Whatever the cause, you somehow know this will be a meal to remember.

According to menu engineer Sean Willard, there’s something romantic about a printed menu. In addition to reflecting a restaurant’s brand, the paper quality, font size, colors and typography all combine to tell a restaurant’s story.

“Menus are philosophical tools about how we look at food. From sharing a restaurateur’s goals and dreams to the vendors they source from, menus reflect a restaurant’s culture,” Willard said.

Sean Willard is a menu engineer who works with his team to create menus that tell a restaurant’s story and food vision. (Photo courtesy of Menu Engineers)

That story has to be imparted to diners in under a minute, and the first 3 seconds are critical: a diners’ attention wanes after a minute, maybe 90 seconds tops.

Photos and illustrations play a part, too. Illustrations allow a diner to imagine what a dish will look like — possibly avoiding disappointment. Keyed to the type of dining establishment, photos set the brand into perspective: a high end restaurant might show a table and plate, while fast food spots would show a more casual serving style.

Willard believes that, “In either case, photos have to be authentic to the brand and true representations of what the food will look like on the plate.”

If portrayed well, photos can drive sales. Research indicates that printed menus with photos have a 30% conversion (sales) rate; in digital menus a picture on third-party platforms like Yelp or TripAdvisor see sales increases of up to 50%. But as only one of the tools in a menu engineer’s toolkit, Willard said images should be used sparingly. The purpose is to highlight items and design a menu that can live on its own.

Enter the pandemic and the QR code

If a diner is reading the menu from a QR code on a cell phone, the amount of time to draw them in is cut in half.

You see them laminated onto tables; some QR codes are printed on placards six feet tall. The inscrutable, scannable black-and-white matrix barcode stands in place of a paper menu; it seemingly popped up overnight as diners returned to restaurants after the first shutdowns in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Willard said QR codes have been around for a while: they typically were used for promotions and an easy way to pull up a digital menu. But he said they’re not here to stay.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, health departments said menus had to be 100% QR codes, causing a quick scramble of how to do this and do it well.”

When properly designed, the QR menu versions didn’t affect profits, but Willard noted that sales could be impacted for restaurant teams who didn’t adapt well — you can’t PDF a four-page menu because diners will lose patience scrolling through it. Teams who streamlined their menus and worked within a narrow scope saw greater success.

At first, restaurants scanned actual menus into a PDF file, but navigating that on a phone was awkward and diners didn’t like it. He found that unless they were tech savvy, older diners had difficulty doing it, although ADA menu versions in some restaurants will provide a non-PDF version that is easier to see because it doesn’t require pinching with two fingers to scroll through it. But overall, Willard said that even for demographic groups who were comfortable perusing menus on handheld devices, there has been lukewarm acceptance.

“People didn’t like the action of following a menu on their phones,” he noted. “And how can you make sure a QR menu will draw out the appropriate psychological response restaurants want? It’s a love relationship. How do you keep that love alive?”

Although Willard said he really felt for the operators and the challenges they faced serving the public — the regulations and speed of changes happening throughout the pandemic has been mind-boggling — he points out that having to look at a phone menu doesn’t allow fellow diners to stay connected with each other.

For certain industry segments, the QR code is the way of the future, particularly those with quick service or fast casual formats.

“Ordering is more efficient, and because of the pandemic, there’s growing acceptance of the format, especially since it’s framed as being sustainable,” Willard said.

The printed menu’s slow return

Willard is seeing more restaurant teams choose a single panel menu not enclosed in a sleeve. It’s easier to clean and allows for flexibility that’s necessary, in part because of pandemic-driven supply chain issues.

“As people shift and printing costs come back, they’re conscious of those costs again too,” he said.

An important factor restaurant teams need to keep in mind are the number of channels where a menu appears.

“Previously, when you changed a menu, it was just for the one in-house and a take-out menu. Now there’s as many as seven channels, if you include third-party review sites, Google and third-party delivery companies. If we don’t manage and update channels, there’s possibility of guest disappointment.”

The Menu Engineers team recommends nearly all their clients to adopt a hybrid model that has both digital and print menus available to guests.

Edley’s Barbecue (Nashville and Chattanooga, Tennessee)The menu team restructured categories to better fit how guests think about barbecue — by protein — allowing the menu’s focus to be on Edley’s Barbecue’s cooking method “off the smoker.” Artwork and design by Brian DeMoss & Brooke Taylor. (Photo courtesy of Menu Engineers)

How a menu engineer helps present the story

Willard, who has a degree from The Hotel School at Cornell University, said he gained a global perspective on the hospitality business during his years in training, not realizing how vast the industry would eventually become. Coursework covered a wide range, from culinary training in full chef uniforms to housekeeping at the Statler Hotel, the school’s on-campus hotel.

“Some of my proudest moments came from working with the houseman — a janitor, essentially the backbone of the hotel — and cleaning toilets together. But it’s The Hotel School at Cornell, maybe that makes me unique and odd, but it gave me an understanding of the whole hotel concept,” he said.

Willard made the jump from making beds to designing menus, working with Gregg Rapp, who mentored Willard until Rapp passed away in 2020 after 33 years in the business.

The art of menu design combines science, art, data and industry expertise, operating under the premise that a sharp looking, navigable menu will grow revenues while enhancing the guest experience, including creating menus that allow guests to easily find what they’re hungry for.

Take that crème brûlée French toast, for example.

It saw sales nearly triple after Willard’s team enclosed it in a box and changed the font color.

“Before, it languished alongside all the other French toasts and waffles. But this is creme brûlée French toast! It needs to be noticed.”

While it might be thought that menu engineers can trick diners into spending more money based on product placement or price alignment, Willard said he doesn’t want the price to impact choice. His job is to help diners find something they love so they return to the restaurant.

Willard realizes his work is his passport to connecting with people around the world —from a start-up in the Congo to the largest restaurant brand in the United States.

Food preparation to entice a dining public is an art form in and of itself. It only makes sense that the first step into this creative world we get to eat happens through the eyes of the beholder — and reading a menu does just that.

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