Menu design plays a key role in maximising food sales for hospitality operators

What role does our brain play in the way we read menus? In the first in a series on menu design and engineering, we take a look at current industry practices on how operators use menu design to drive sales.

The saying goes that we eat with our eyes and there’s definitely truth in that. A summary of research published in the Elsevier Journal of Brain and Cognition in 2016 goes as far back as Apicius, a 1st Century Roman gourmand, who first noted the concept. Scientists attribute the idea to evolutionary development – meaning the sight of food brings instant comfort, knowing as a race that we’re going to survive at least into the immediate future. To its extreme, the concept continues into the digital age, with the foodporn phenomenon that took social media by storm and still shows no signs of abating. #Food is now the number 25 most popular hashtag on Instagram. In a recent study conducted by Global Wireless Solutions, nearly a fifth of London restaurant customers complained their meals had been ‘ruined’ by poor mobile reception preventing them uploading pictures and videos onto Instagram. Simply, the sight of well-presented food and evocative yet simple descriptions of each dish are intrinsic to restaurant design and, by turn, demonstrate that it’s clear the menu remains crucial to its success.

Best practice to drive average spend

The first tip is to ensure the menu reads simply and the ordering process is logical. For example, in a casual and fine dining setting, operators should encourage the customer to start their order with a drink. Logically thinking, the drinks section should then lead into starters, main dishes and desserts. While the addition of a drink with an order is an obvious upsell, the opportunity to ensure there is a dessert attachment shouldn’t be missed. Dessert is frequently the final decision in many orders after the customer has already committed to multiple other dishes but there are ways to ensure this valuable course isn’t forgotten. One of the easiest ways to guarantee a dessert sale is to bundle it into a meal deal or to request that it is selected at the start.

A well-designed menu helps to alleviate the anxiety or confusion that may occur when there is a vast amount of product offerings. A good design will also help drive profit by nudging consumers towards certain products.

Translating 1980s research for a digital world

There are plenty of assumptions across the industry concerning just what operators should consider when designing a menu, from product imagery and different fonts to symbols and boxes, as well as the most enticing item descriptions which showcase brand personality, to name a few.

There is also some argument that item location within the menu is a key influencer in the decision-making process. Differing researchers have published results relating to reading patterns and/or eye movements. However, with the evolution of fourth and fifth screen media, the question is how relevant are the findings from the late 1980s that we are all so familiar with but which were made studying printed menus? Many consumers now live in a digital world, with a generation growing up with tablets. To definitively identify how customers read menus today needs well-founded research that includes eye-tracking studies, analysis of facial expression and assessment of instant reactions – something the team at RMS and our academic research partners at the Sales & Marketing Innovation Lab at the University of South Florida (USF) are currently in the process of investigating – with some fascination! Our aim is to dispel some of the myths and provide operators with evidence-based insights they can really use. We hope to publish the results by mid-November 2019.

Engage all five senses

Reading a menu involves imagination or experience to calculate the tastiness of an item. Leveraging all five senses can help expedite the decision-making process because these senses are immediate, help us to interpret data and sway the decision. So whether it’s a visual cue, such as photography, or a physical showcase – think of the classic dessert trolley being rolled to the table – or a scent, such as freshly made bread, coffee or the sweet smell of the cake display – harnessing the power of the senses is vital.

Digital signs, which rotate or display moving images, can also assist with the effective delivery of visual cues where operators find themselves limited on space. However, determining the content and pace of those messages dictates how successful they are. If not executed properly, digital signage can be detrimental to the business, for example displaying a message that can be misinterpreted by the customer because it moves too fast and no message is received or highlighting items that inadvertently result in a lower average spend. At the same time, colour science has been proven across many industries and is constantly deployed by marketers. Establishing a colour palette that relates to the style of the menu can increase uptake of the items within it.

Much of the skill in designing a menu aligns with how the menu is engineered. Part 2 in our series on menu psychology will delve deeper into this and what operators need to do to drive those all-important sales.

Dora Furman, Vice President of Consulting Services at Revenue Management Solutions, manages client accounts in multi-national brands. Prior to joining RMS, she worked as a CPA at PwC and as a financial analyst supporting the sales team at PepsiCo. She holds a Bachelors in Business Administration from the University of Michigan Ross School of Business and a Masters in Management in Hospitality from Cornell University.

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