Why Restaurant Menu Design Matters

Menus, both online and in your restaurant, can make or break a guest’s experience long before your staff has even had a chance to greet them.

Several years ago, Gallup reported the average guest spends about 109 seconds looking at a restaurant’s menu. In less than two minutes, your guest has read through your selections, and has likely picked what they’re going to eat. No matter how your menu is presented to the guest, you don’t have a lot of time to get your message across, so time quite literally equals money.  

And you may not realize it, but an increasing number of your guests are interacting with your restaurant prior to placing an online order or step through the door. Menus, both online and in your restaurant, can make or break a guest’s experience long before your staff has even had a chance to greet them.  

By understanding the subtle arts of menu engineering and design, any eatery can develop and maintain a menu designed to increase profits and reduce stress for both staff and guests.

Why Menu Engineering Influences Menu Design

It’s impossible to know what menu items are your biggest money makers if you don’t know how much it costs to make each dish, how much you’re selling them for, and how many of each item is being sold. Menu engineering empowers restaurants to understand the cost of every ingredient they use, what the margins looks like for each item, and what dishes perform best with guests. If you haven’t yet, check out our menu engineering post for a more in-depth explanation.

Menu engineering takes the guesswork out of deciding what dishes are your stars, which ones could benefit from some added promotion, and which ones to strike from the menu. Before taking the first step toward designing your menu, complete an analysis to understand where your best opportunities lie and highlight them in your finalized menu.  

If you choose to skip the engineering phase, you could be leaving valuable dollars on the table by promoting the wrong items or simply leaving poor-performing dishes on the menu.

The Golden Triangle

In the same way that most cultures read the words on a page from left to right and top to bottom, there’s a common theme related to how customers read a menu. Typically, when guests peruse a traditional printed menu, their eyes start at the top middle of the page, move to the top right, and then quickly shift to the top left of the page.Use the Back of Your Menu - PAR Technology

How does the Golden Triangle work? It’s simple. The top middle of your menu is where guests’ eyes go to first, so that’s where restaurants will place limited time offers, daily specials, or best-selling items (“Home of Big Betty – Voted the State’s Best Burger!”) The top right is the next area of focus and is where you’ll often find main course items. Finally, the top left is where many restaurants place their appetizers and sharables.

With the power of menu engineering, these three spots provide the best profit margins and can boost overall check totals when combined. If you include a few of the design elements we’ll explore in the next few paragraphs, guests will be more likely to see, and purchase, your most profitable items.

Creative Menu Layouts

Your menu is an extension of your restaurant, so it’s only fair that you add some unique flair to it. Black and white are great, but don’t be afraid to use colors and boxes to highlight featured items. With that said, don’t go overboard and turn your menu into a post-modern abstract art display that’s difficult to read and impossible to understand.  

To create a more inviting and interesting menu, both online and in-store, try:  

Boxing out – Patterns help draw in the eye, so place boxes around your most profitable dishes or limited time offers. The box makes the item look important and can help draw the eye in while scanning.  

Sectioning – No one wants to look at a messy menu with dishes all over the place. Group like things together (appetizers, entrees, drinks), or go one step further and break these sections down even more (each protein gets its own section). Boxes can help make sectioning more impactful.  

Photos – You might think slapping pictures of your delicious food all over your menu would be a great idea, but photos are best used in moderation. If you’re going to use photos of your food, spend a few dollars and have a professional photographer come in and take them for you. Lower quality photos look bad to begin with and look even worse when thrown online or printed onto a paper menu.  

It’s also important to make sure the photos you show your guests look the same as the food coming out of the kitchen. Presentation matters. We’ve all seen ads on TV or online of beautiful burgers and piping hot sandwiches only to be met with a meal that looks like it’s been crushed by a truck tire. It’s not appealing. And NEVER use stock photos to represent your food. 

Illustration and Graphic Design – If you don’t want to use photos, that’s totally fine. Illustrations can add a pop of color and draw attention to your bar or food menu design while tying directly into your restaurant’s theme.

Using Colors... And Colorful Words

Colors – Not to get cerebral, but there is a lot of science behind the psychology of color and why certain colors invoke different feelings. Restaurants have been basing their entire personalities on colors for decades, which is why when you drive down any fast-food restaurant row you’re met with a sea of red logos; red helps speed up blood flow, which, in turn, makes you feel hungry.   

As with everything, use color in moderation. If there are too many colors on the page or if everything is the same color, it can dull the effects of using color psychology and confuse customers.
Use lighter colors for menu prices - PAR Technology

Text -Text fonts and sizing are also important design elements that can give a menu extra flair, both online and when printed. An easy way to use fonts is to use the largest fonts for your most popular items and menu sections, then use a smaller font for the menu item name, and an even smaller font for the item description.  

It’s ok to use fonts with a little more flourish as well. If your restaurant has a font theme that works for the logo, use it as a header. Splash it around on the page to give the menu a little life, but don’t overuse it, especially if it’s harder to read in smaller sizes.Truth in Menu Matters - PAR Technology 

Some text doesn’t need to be included. Dollar signs can cause people to think about the price of a dish, so avoid using them. If you can, include the price at the end of the description, so customers still know how much things cost, but can’t easily scan prices. If a price ends in something other than “.00,” try writing the price as 10.5.

There are even laws on the books dictating menu language. If a menu item features grilled chicken, it can’t be microwaved chicken with dark lines painted on it. If something is described as “fresh,” there are rules dictating that it can’t come from a can, be frozen, or be anything but fresh. Weights and totals fall under simple rules.  

Menu Design is an Art

In reality, we’ve only scratched the surface of creating the best restaurant menu design possible. It’s an ongoing and iterative process for every restaurant concept and should be updated periodically for accuracy and freshness.  

Your menu is your creative space, but it’s got to be easy to read, easy to understand, and easy to make decisions. Like Gallup said, your customers only give you about 109 seconds of their time. Make them count.

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