As a restaurant owner, you try to cater to a wide range of customer tastes. Business is business after all. But some items are more profitable than others. Increasing sales of these more profitable items will improve your bottom line. 

How do you nudge customers towards these high-margin items? Here are 6 restaurant menu engineering tips.

how to make a restaurant menu

1. Categorize Items Based on Profit and Popularity

Menu engineering is both an art and a science. Many restaurant owners have successfully improved menu profitability by simply categorizing their menu items based on profit and popularity.

Specifically, you should be using four categories for your menu matrix. The names are strange, but they each represent different profitability and popularity levels:

  • Plough horse: Popular, but have low profitability
  • Stars: Very profitable and very popular
  • Dogs: Not popular or profitable
  • Puzzles: Highly profitable, but not very popular

The goal is to classify all of your menu items based on these four categories, and you can achieve this through costing and menu analysis. Analyze your cost and sales data using your POS data to figure out which category each item falls into.

Now, you can categorize items to maximize profits and engineer your menu. 

  • Dogs: Consider ditching these menu items. If some items appeal to a specific customer segment, consider reducing your promotion of these items.
  • Puzzles: Because these items are the highest profit margin food, you want to keep them on your menu and find ways to highlight them. With the right strategy, you may transform these dishes into “stars.”
  • Stars: These are your most profitable food to sell. Use smart placement and highlighting to draw customer attention to these menu items. 
  • Plough horses: These are some of your most popular items, so you’ll want to keep them around. But you may want to consider creating more profitable versions of these dishes.

Categorizing menu items based on popularity and profitability will allow you to use concrete data to make strategic changes rather than the hit-or-miss approach. It will require some time and effort, but the reward of higher profits makes it worth it.

2. Highlight Items You Want to Sell Most

Once you have an understanding of how profitable and popular your menu items are, you can design your menu to highlight the items you want to sell the most.

It’s important to consider your customer base and their behavior when making a restaurant menu.

  • Do customers read your entire menu? 
  • What drives customers to your establishment?
  • What types of customers order the items you want to highlight?

Consider your answers to these questions when designing your menu so that you appeal to your customer base.

Here are some tips to successfully highlight menu items:

  • Use visual cues to draw attention to certain items. Place a box around the item, include a photo or illustration near it, or put an asterisk near the item. The goal is to draw the customer’s eye to that particular item. Only highlight a limited number of items to maximize impact.
  • Place prices after the menu description, not in a separate column. Placing prices in a separate column draws attention to the cost, which may turn customers away from your high-margin items. Don’t use a dollar symbol. Simply list the price as “6.00” or “6.”
  • Choose the right menu design. Two-panel menus tend to be the best option because they are easy to read, give diners plenty of options, and they still allow you to influence customer decisions. The more pages your menu has, the less control you have over which items customers choose.

When making a menu for a restaurant, it’s important to make sure that your menu is the appropriate size. Highlighted items will take up more space on the page. Account for this when designing your menu, and don’t make the mistake of trying to cram everything onto one page. 

3. Downsize Your Items

Earlier we discussed the possibility of removing the “dogs” from your menu. These are menu items that aren’t popular and don’t generate much profit. Essentially, these items are just dead weight.

Downsizing and removing these items will get rid of clutter on your menu and allow you to better guide customers towards those higher-margin items you want them to buy.

Unless you have a really good reason to keep those items around (maybe those are your only vegetarian or gluten-free items), ditch them and focus on highlighting your more profitable items. The fewer items you offer, the greater the control you have over customer choices and profitability.

4. Use Customer Eye Movement to Your Advantage

Customers typically focus on certain areas of the menu, depending on the menu’s configuration. You can use these eye movement patterns to your advantage to ensure that high-margin items get the most attention. 

When you make a menu for a restaurant, here’s where customers will look first:

  • One-panel menus: Top of the page gets the most attention, while the area just below the bottom of the page gets the least attention.
  • Two-panel menus: Top right-side panel gets the most attention, while the area just above the bottom left-side panel gets the least attention.
  • Three-panel menus: Top third of the panel gets the most attention, while the area just above the bottom of the first panel gets the least.
  • Multi-panel menus: Top of each page gets the most attention, while the area just above the bottom of each page gets the least.

making a restaurant menu

5. Place Your Most Profitable Menu Items Front and Center

With a better understanding of customer eye movement, you can place your most profitable food items in the areas that customers read first.

When customers look at menus, their eyes are usually drawn to the middle first, the top right second, and then finally to the top left side.

Each menu page should place your most profitable food items front and center. These will be the first items customers see, so they’ll be more likely to order them. 

The bottom of the menu is a great place to listless important items, like sides, extras, dressings, and drinks. 

6. Be Descriptive

Menu item descriptions should reflect their importance. The greater the importance, the richer the description. Menu items like lobster, steak, and other high-margin dishes should have longer, enticing descriptions that play to the customer’s appetite. 

For lower margin items, like pasta dishes and hamburgers, there’s no need to go over-the-top with your descriptions. Remember, the goal is to get customers to order your high-margin items, so focus your efforts on those.

When writing descriptions for high-margin items:

  • Focus on what sets the dish apart from others. Don't just include a list of ingredients. Describe the flavors and what makes the dish worth choosing.
  • Humanize the dish. Is this a family recipe? Was this your favorite dish growing up?
  • Use brand names. If your dish incorporates ingredients from well-known and respected brands, include them in your description to increase the perception of quality.

Final Thoughts

Improving your menu profitability is crucial and should be an ongoing process. It’s important to frequently evaluate and analyze your menu to make sure that it’s performing as well as it should be. Building a restaurant menu that increases your profits will require time and effort, but it’s worth the investment.