- Importance of the menu
- Types and categories of menus
- Advantages and disadvantages of different types of menus
- Principles of menu planning and factors to consider
- Steps in planning menus
- Menu psychology
- Accuracy in menus
- Recognize the importance and use of menus as a management control tool
- Describe categories and characteristics of different types of menus
- List advantages and disadvantages of cycle menus, standard (static) menus, and daily menus
- Describe effective menu planning principles
- Describe various factors to consider when planning menus for customers in a foodservice operation’s target market
- Order the steps in menu planning from start to finish
- Recognize examples of menu psychology common in the industry
- Recall “truth in menu” and menu labeling guidelines for writing menus
- Dietary Guidelines for Americans
- Cycle menu
- Daily (or single-use) menu
- Static menu
- Theme menu
- Sociocultural factors
- “Truth in menu”
- Menu labeling
- Menu psychology
Importance of the Menu
You are a foodservice manager. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the following: appetizers, entrees, desserts, daily specials, ethnic cuisine, fine or casual dining, pricing psychology, trends, cut food costs, reduce your staff, dietary guidelines, government regulations, sustainability, special diets, food delivery, marketing, equipment, customer demand?
Each of the above words probably brought quite a few different thoughts to mind. One word, however, affects—and is affected by—every term on the list: THE MENU.
The importance of the menu to a foodservice operation cannot be emphasized too often or too much. The fact that it is an early topic in this book underscores its importance for those studying the management of foodservice operations. The menu is also called “the driver” of a foodservice operation. This descriptive term indicates that every part of a foodservice operation is affected by the menu and stresses how the menu is a managerial tool for controlling many aspects of a foodservice operation. As you learn more about menus and menu planning, keep in mind menus from your favorite restaurants or your recent meals in other types of foodservice operations.
Types and Categories of Menus
Menus can be categorized in a variety of different ways and there are different types of menus, which are often associated with particular types of foodservice operations. A classic way to categorize menus is by how often they repeat.
Static menus are those that basically stay the same every day and are most typically used in quick service to upscale casual restaurants. These types of menus may be presented on a menu board or in some type of printed format, sometimes laminated so it is easily cleaned, that is handed to the customer. Typical sections of a lunch or dinner static menu include appetizers, salads, entrees (often further divided), sides, desserts and beverages. Choices may be limited, as they are in some quick service, such as McDonalds or Five Guys, and quick casual restaurants, such as Panera and Chipotle, or choices may be extensive requiring a menu that resembles a small book, such as the Cheesecake Factory.
Cycle menus are most often used in non-commercial foodservice operations that serve the same group of customers every day, such as corporate dining (business and industry), healthcare, schools, and long-term care or CCRCs. A cycle menu follows a particular pattern designed to meet the needs of the operations customers and repeats on a regular basis. The length of the cycle should be set with the customer in mind. For instance, a hospital can typically use a shorter cycle menu, perhaps five to seven days, for patients, since most do not stay in the facility for many days. However a foodservice operation in a continuing care retirement community may need a cycle as long as six weeks since customers may be eating in the CCRC dining room on a daily basis. Cycle menus are often planned seasonally so an operation might have a spring, summer and fall/winter cycle.
Daily (or single use) menus change on a daily basis or may be planned for a special event with a one-time use. Daily menus are often used in fine dining or for foodservice operations that feature locally sourced products, which are available in the market on a given day. Alice Water’s Chez Panisse restaurant uses a daily menu to highlight seasonal and locally available foods with a “farm to table” approach. Single use menus are planned for catered events like banquets or parties, and are also used in many operations for “daily specials.”
Other ways to categorize menus
Menus can also be categorized in a variety of other ways including any of the following:
Function of the menu – such as a tasting menu, catering, hotel room service, dessert, wine or drinks
Meal/Time Period – such as breakfast, lunch, happy hour, or dinner
Style of service – such as American, French (table side cooking), or Russian (platter service)
Pricing styles – such as a la carte (each items is individually priced), table d’hôte (a selection of complete meals offered at set prices), prix fixe (one price for the entire menu), and most commonly seen in U.S. restaurants, a combination of pricing styles to best cater to the target customer of the operation.
Amount of selection – selective (customer has many choices typical of a family or casual restaurant), non-selective (no choice as with many tasting menus, hospital special diet menus, or sit-down banquets), or limited or semi-selective (typical of small operations, fine dining or themed restaurants)
Advantages and Disadvantages of Various Types of Menus
These different categories overlap among each other and types of foodservice operations, both commercial and non-commercial, and offer both advantages and disadvantages to management and control. For example, static menus would be easiest for forecasting, purchasing and labor scheduling since they are the same every day, but cycle menus have those same advantages over daily menus. However, it can take restaurant chains a year or more to plan or make a change to a static menu. Daily menus are the most flexible and can be easily changed to adjust to product or market price changes. Static, and to an extent cycle menus, offer the customer a predictable dining experience, but daily menus offer a new dining adventure with every visit to the foodservice operation. Of course foodservice operations often combine elements of these different types of menus to gain the advantages offered by each. For example: many restaurants using a static menu offer daily specials or features, which give some flexibility to offer menu items that are seasonal, or trendy, or use product that needs to be sold and not wasted.
Menu Planning Principles and Factors to Consider
Menu planning principles include balance, nutritional quality, aesthetics, and variety, including color, texture, flavors, shapes and sizes of food. The equipment and personnel available to produce and serve the menu are also important considerations in planning the menu. Along with all of these considerations, the effective foodservice manager also has to consider costs, production and other management issues.
Factors affecting menu planning can be organized into two main areas: customer satisfaction and management decisions. Both of these areas must be considered when menus are planned. Having a menu without customers is like having 1000 acres of land for sale—in Antarctica. At the same time, a menu with items that cannot be produced at an acceptable cost will simply put a foodservice operation out of business or drive a noncommercial operation into the red. Most foodservice directors know that this could mean the end of their job.
Four factors related to customer satisfaction include sociocultural background, food habits and preferences, nutritional influence, and aesthetics.
Customer satisfaction. Knowing your customers (and your potential customers) is obviously a key to planning and designing menus. Think about yourself as the customer. What are some of the reasons you like or dislike a menu? You probably have certain preferences— certain foods and combinations of foods—from your experiences growing up. Many of us only like the way mom makes spaghetti sauce or the way dad grills the steaks; or we think that grandma’s sugar cookies are definitely the best. We almost can’t eat tomato soup without grilled cheese sandwiches or meatloaf without mashed potatoes AND gravy. Collecting some market research on our customers and studying food and menu trends can help menu planners to keep the menu fresh and satisfying for our customers. Always keep the sociocultural background and food habits and preferences of the customer in mind when planning menus.
The influence of nutrition and government regulations
Increasingly, our knowledge of nutrition is influencing the way we eat. The U.S. government issues Dietary Guidelines with recommendations about how people should eat. Many nutrition trends, such as smaller portions, ethnic foods, and gluten-free diets also affect menu planning, Think about the new food products that have become available in your grocery store or your local restaurants in the last year. Many of these new items have some nutritional claim that has brought them to the store shelf or the plate. Noncommercial foodservice operations, particularly in schools and in health care settings, have a nutrition mandate from both the government and the customer. When it comes to feeding children and the elderly, many other different issues surface. Some of these issues involve foods and surroundings unfamiliar to kids, and the ability of older patients to chew and swallow. The list goes on. Sometimes customers may be misinformed about nutrition; then we have the bigger job of educating them, as well as trying to feed them a well-balanced, healthy diet. In some settings the menu also serves as a nutrition education tool.
A few key points to remember for the non-commercial sector:
- A “textbook” approach to menu planning is not enough. As a foodservice or dietetic professional, you have to recognize those unique factors that significantly affect each individual consumer.
- You must design your menus to ensure a balanced, nutritious diet that reflects more of the recipient’s values than your own. The introduction of unusual or unfamiliar foods may cause a customer to lose interest in eating altogether.
- A noncommercial foodservice menu can be used to help a consumer adjust to a new, unfamiliar regimen. But this educational function usually requires an increased menu variety with a greater food production effort and perhaps higher costs.
Not to be forgotten is the issue of aesthetics. You’ve heard it many times before: we do eat with our eyes. How our food is presented, along with texture, consistency, color, shape, and the preparation method, influences how we feel and what we think about a menu. It can even influence our appetite and our interest in eating.
When the menu is thought of as a management tool, a number of other factors related to menu planning enter the picture. To plan a good menu you need to consider the following factors:
- food cost and budgetary goals of the foodservice operation
- production capability, including available equipment and personnel
- type of service and food delivery system
- availability of foods
- the philosophy of the business and foodservice operation
Each one of us has probably had at least one experience in our lives when the menu planner failed to consider all of the above factors. One common to many may be Thanksgiving dinner—either at home or in your foodservice operation—and production capability. The oven(s) is full of roasting turkey and perhaps the bread stuffing has been squeezed in to the side. Now what will we do with the baked sweet potatoes, the baked corn, and the green bean casserole, plus the pies and rolls that need to be baked? The experienced and wise menu planner considers production capability and adjusts the menu accordingly. Perhaps the sweet potatoes, corn, and green beans can all be steamed instead of baked, and the pies and rolls can be baked ahead of the turkey.
Another effective menu planning principle to consider is called cross-utilization. This “best practice” involves using one food product in multiple ways. Let’s consider a standard chicken breast as an example. A teriyaki-glazed chicken breast could be a center of the plate item, while a home-style chicken noodle soup, a Napa almond chicken salad, and buffalo chicken pizza could also be menu offerings. This allows the operation to purchase just one product, saving time and reducing costs, while offering a large variety of different dishes. More expensive and more perishable food items, such as fresh meats, poultry, fish and produce items, should be cross-utilized as much as possible when menus are planned to reduce waste and better control costs.
Be sure to think carefully and keep in mind the capabilities of your operation, your production capacity, food availability, employee skills and financial goals when planning menus.
Suggested Steps in Menu Planning
Once it’s time to actually plan the menu, the conventional wisdom is to start with a menu pattern that fits your operation and then work through breakfast, then lunch, then dinner. For instance, if you are planning a lunch menu, will you have soups, salads, sandwiches, pizzas, full platters, sides, desserts, and beverages? How many selections will you offer in each of your chosen menu categories? Will you have daily specials? Are there any other special options you might want to offer your customer?
Once you establish your menu categories, it is recommended to plan main entrees (platters) first, then the sides that go with the entrees. Other entrees, such as sandwiches and entrée salads are planned next, followed by soups, appetizers, additional sides, and any planned daily specials. Desserts and beverages finish off the categories. This sequence of working through the menu categories helps make sure the most expensive dishes are chosen first so the lower priced items can better fit in the plan and complement the choices offered. Typically the more limited the menu choices, the easier it is to control costs, so it’s not surprising that many successful operations serve only pizza and a few Italian selections while others specialize in burgers and fries, or even just ice cream and frozen treats with a few sandwiches. The menu planner can consider factors such as cross-utilization of products, balance, variety, customer preferences and trends, as well as all those management factors for the entire menu mix. In a later chapter another management tool, menu engineering, a way to analyze the menu offerings and their popularity and profitability, will be discussed.
Once the menu is planned, it is typically published in one form or another. This can be anything from a simple menu board or a printed sheet of paper that is easily changed to a lengthy, multiple page laminated “book” that might be used for 18-24 months before any changes are made. Menus are often published on an operation’s website, shared on social media, and reviewed by customers on user-generated content websites, such as TripAdvisor and Yelp. When menus are published, operators have the opportunity to use “menu psychology” in their menu design to try to influence customer choices and purchases. Increasing sales by raising the average check of a restaurant or overall participation or promoting healthier choices for an onsite foodservice operation are typically the overall goals of using menu psychology.
Menu psychology involves using a variety of techniques typically based on research about how people read a menu and make choices about spending money. Some examples of menu psychology in menu design include:
- placing menu items where the customers eyes tend to go first or last (see the URL links below),
- using graphics such as boxes and borders to draw attention to menu items,
- displaying prices in a way to encourage customer spending, or
- not using dollar signs, leader dots, or column pricing (where all prices are lined up), which can cause guests to spend less, and
- using descriptive terms for menu items to encourage sales.
Truth in Menu Best Practices
Menu writers and foodservice operators often use detailed merchandizing terms to describe menu items in the hopes of increasing sales of those menu items or commanding higher prices. Using these expressive sales tactics is fine, as long as the terms and descriptions used are true.
“Truth in Menu” also referred to as “accuracy in menus” is a best practice in planning and sharing menus. Though there is no federal law regarding accuracy in menus, in general, there are regulations addressing this issue in various states around the country. Accuracy in menus addresses any and all of the following:
- brand names
- production identification
- points of origin
- merchandizing terms
- food preparation
- verbal and visual presentation, and
- dietary & nutritional concerns
While operators are certainly allowed to merchandize on their menus to encourage sales, lying about the food being offered is not acceptable. Of course there will always be those operators who stretch the truth with items like mile high meatloaf, or man-hole size nacho platter, and there are items such as English muffins and French toast that obviously aren’t sourced from England or France.
Menu Labeling and Consumer Advisory Regulations
There are some federal rules and regulations that all foodservice operations must be aware of and follow.
Retail Food Establishment Consumer Advisory Requirements
If meat, fish, poultry, shellfish or eggs are served raw, undercooked, or cooked to order, a disclosure identifying the foods, plus a reminder in 11 pt type, must appear on the menu or in a written disclosure declaring that eating the specified types of animal products as raw or undercooked “may increase your risk of food-borne illness”. (1)
Food Labeling Rules
In 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued food labeling rules for restaurants and similar retail food establishments. The summary of the rule states:
“To implement the nutrition labeling provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (Affordable Care Act or ACA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA or we) is requiring disclosure of certain nutrition information for standard menu items in certain restaurants and retail food establishments. The ACA, in part, amended the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (the FD&C Act), among other things, to require restaurants and similar retail food establishments that are part of a chain with 20 or more locations doing business under the same name and offering for sale substantially the same menu items to provide calorie and other nutrition information for standard menu items, including food on display and self-service food. Under provisions of the ACA, restaurants and similar retail food establishments not otherwise covered by the law may elect to become subject to these Federal requirements by registering every other year with FDA. Providing accurate, clear, and consistent nutrition information, including the calorie content of foods, in restaurants and similar retail food establishments will make such nutrition information available to consumers in a direct and accessible manner to enable consumers to make informed and healthful dietary choices.” (2)
Menu planning is a learned skill improved through practice. Effective menus are critical to the financial health of a foodservice operation and serve as a “driver” of the business. Their importance to a successful foodservice operation can not be overstated.
(2) Food Labeling; Nutrition Labeling of Standard Menu Items in Restaurants and Similar Retail Food Establishments, (2014, Dec. 1). Retrieved from: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2014/12/01/2014-27833/food-labeling-nutrition-labeling-of-standard-menu-items-in-restaurants-and-similar-retail-food