How to Build the Perfect Menu: Part One

What is a menu?

For the customer, it’s a list of recipes to choose between.

For you, it’s the ultimate marketing tool, so your menu design needs to be well thought out and strategic.

Your menu is the one piece of advertising that all your customers are guaranteed to see. And through that menu, you have the power to influence their decision-making for your benefit.

So, whether you’re a new or established restaurant, crafting your menu is a worthwhile investment.

What to Put on Your Menu

Recipes are the building blocks of your menu, and chances are you have some great ones already. So how many items should you include?

The magic number is seven. Seven items in each category. Why? Because when there are too many items in one category, customers tend to get confused and default to what they normally order, says menu engineer Greg Rapp.

If there are recipes you want to include but don’t have room for, rotate them as specials, or consider having a rotating menu.


Pricing is a delicate balance between making a profit and scaring customers away. These are some common pricing methods:

  • Ideal Food Cost: Divide the actual cost of making the item by your profit margin (usually 25% or 30%), and that’s your menu price.
  • Competition Pricing: Compare your items to your competitors’ and choose whether you want to price them the same, slightly higher, or slightly lower.
  • Demand-Driven: If you’re offering something that no one else nearby is, you may be able to price your item higher.

Most restaurants use a blend of these methods. Even with ideal food cost pricing, you should keep an eye on your competitors. If their burgers are selling more than yours are, you may need to do something differently.

Types of Menu Items

Now it’s time to sort your recipes by profit and popularity. Understanding these categories, and knowing how to promote them accordingly, is key to booming business.

  • Stars: very profitable & very popular

These are your winners, your best items. Put them right where your customers will see them!

  • Plow horses: not very profitable, but very popular

Keep these items; they’re probably the ones enticing customers to return. You may want to experiment with their profitability, though. See if you can customize some of these dishes with add-ons.

  • Puzzles: very profitable, but not very popular

They may not be popular, but they have potential. Try placing these items strategically on the menu or having your wait staff promote them.

  • Dogs: neither profitable nor popular

Every menu has dogs, and it’s up to you to decide which ones to get rid of, if any. You may want to rework these items to be more profitable, or you may want to keep them to entice your customers to order your stars and puzzles (more on this later).

So now you have a better understanding of what to put on your menu. In Part 2, you’ll learn how to put it on your menu and make a profit.