How To Create The Perfect Restaurant Menu

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One of the toughest challenges when opening a new restaurant is creating and changing your menu. The menu is what brings customers in and pays the bills, so it's crucial to balance room for trial and error with the perfect array of dishes. If you are creating a menu (or about to change your existing one) and need some help getting it right, these tips from some successful Silver Chef clients will help to steer you in the right direction.

Silver Chef is a hospitality equipment funding solution for cafe owners, hotels and restaurateurs. Here are nine menu creation tips sourced from some of its 25,000 customers. While primarily aimed at business owners, many of these tips are equally applicable to dinner parties at home.

#1 Start with your environment

The first step to menu planning is to think about the location of your restaurant, café or eatery. What are people looking for in your area? What is currently popular and where are there niches? What are the socioeconomic considerations in the area? These factors should all play a part in the creation of your menu.

“You want to be opulent without alienating clientele… you want something different and interesting that attracts people from all walks of life," explains Conrad Hector from Duck Duck Moose. Are you surrounded by fish and chip shops? Perhaps look at some fresh, gourmet eats for your menu. Find something your audience will find exciting and enticing.

David McBey from Middle Green Sports believes honing in on your audience is also essential: "Take a holistic approach to your menu and consider the location and type of clientele and how this fits with your menu."

#2 Stick to a theme

Every restaurant has a style, theme and atmosphere that are important to match to your menu. While there is room for flexibility, a cohesive menu is essential: you don’t want to confuse or deter potential clientele. Although it is good to be different, everyone likes the classics so try to find a balance between the two. Remember, your customers have a lot of control as to your success -- pleasing them is just as important as doing what you love!

#3 Start flexible and change often

Your first menu shouldn’t be your last. Make sure what you create, even if it seems perfect, has room for change. You want to be able to alter things that don’t work and try new things to see if they could be successful. Regularly changing your menu is not only a great way to find out what works and what doesn’t, but also a way to build excitement for your guests.

Duck Duck Moose changes its menu monthly, while Tooborac Hotel has seasonal menus. Try to find a regular schedule for change and stick to it. When it comes time to change the menu, remember that you don’t have to change everything -- keep the best and mix up the rest!

#4 Keep it small

No one likes a huge menu with too much to choose from. Research has found that more choice causes indecisiveness and could even result in a guest leaving. While you may think lots of choice is great, it can make it confusing and frustrating for the customer which, ultimately, results in a decline in profitability. A simple, small menu is easier for everyone. Your guests will like it, you won’t have to buy as many different kinds of produce and your chefs will be able to focus on quality over quantity.

#5 Use specials to test menu items

Specials are a great way to test and learn for a restaurant. They give you the opportunity to see what clients like without making them a permanent addition. According to David McBey, this is a great way to make smart choices on your menu and make the most profit: "Rather than throwing away or not taking the risk on menu items, put them on a special to find out what you should keep and what needs changing the next time you refresh the menu.”

James Carlin from Tooborac Hotel believes specials are also a great tactic in the lead up to a menu change: “They can be used to trial items so when you do change it up, you know it will work."

#6 Have a 'signature' dish

Your signature dish should be the golden egg on the menu: it's a special dish that showcases your chef’s talents and your restaurant's style. It is what draws people to your establishment and what they walk away talking about. It should be the star, but remember to make all your dishes worthy of remembering. Rather than a rose among thorns, make it the jewel in the crown.

#7 Price your menu accordingly

There are many factors that come into play when pricing menu items. Try to consider all of the things that could affect your profit margin and make sure these are covered. Staff pay and produce barely scrape the surface! Public holidays, equipment, utilities, rent, produce and prep, breakage, staff pay and any incidentals are all outgoing costs. You may need to do a bit of trial and error to figure out how to cover them all. Consider price points and look at your competitors and clientele and remember you may need to mix up the menu when it comes to cost. Not all dishes will equal profit – some will be in the positive, some won’t reach it. By balancing this you should be able to maintain your overall food cost goals.

#8 Make your menu attractive and engaging

The design on your menu can have as much impact as the dishes do! Where you place things, the shape and feel of the menu and what kind of colours and visuals you include all affect how a guest uses it. Conrad recommends placing importance on the size of the menu and where dishes are placed. Smaller menus are a tick and items at the start and end of the menu are usually the most memorable. David McBey believes A4 books are great, particularly for pubs and similar venues, as they are easy to read and hold and can be stood up on tables.

#9 Choose the right ingredients

Your ingredients can vary based on your location and clientele, but there are a few key pointers to maximising profit and minimising wastage. James recommends reducing wastage by having dishes with several of the same ingredients, “crossing over produce reduces waste and cost. Less waste, less prep and less equipment all equals better profits, as well as better prices and service for the customer”. Conrad said that using less red meat helps keep costs down for Duck Duck Moose, “reducing protein reduces costs. To make up for this we have specials every weekend with red meat and other more expensive produce”. Remember there are different techniques for different establishments, so find something that works for your menu, customers and style while keeping costs low.

Running a restaurant can be overwhelming but it can also be extremely rewarding. Get it right the first time with these tips and if you want more – download The Quick Guide to Boosting Restaurant Profit. Filled with tips and tricks to put your restaurant on the front foot, Silver Chef’s guide takes profitable planning a step further and covers the entire restaurant.

[See also: The Silver Chef Quick Guide to Boosting Restaurant Profits]

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