In a world where an entire class of mobile apps exists to help people discover places to dine, your restaurant menu is the key to whetting the public’s appetite.

Whether you’re a restaurant owner looking to update the items on their menu or merely looking to trim the proverbial fat, you want to ensure that you design a restaurant menu that resonates with customers and keeps them coming back for me. After All, your menu is the main course for success. Here’s the recipe you need to maximize your chances for success.

A Dash of Speed

Which dishes can your kitchen produce quickly? If you’re looking to add new recipes, which ingredients come conveniently pre-prepped from your supplier, or take a minimal amount of effort to prep?

Tying your new menu offerings to steps that your staff can already clear without a problem will make the path to introducing them that much easier to navigate.

For example: If you know that you can get diced tomatoes up and ready in seconds, but other food items like potatoes take your prep staff a long time, opt for bruschetta rather than a breakfast hash.

The same goes for proteins. A marinated sous-vide chicken breast that can simply be plucked — no pun intended — from a circulator is much more efficient than a fresh fish fillet that needs to be tended to continuously on the grill.

A Soupcon of Storage

Yes, part of the appeal of limited time ingredients or dishes are the component of scarcity, but you need to feel confident putting it on the menu as well. The taste difference between fresh and thawed is distinctive, but certain ingredients — notably purees and herbs — can take freezing or preserve without spoiling the flavor of your finished creation.

Encourage your cooks to experiment with items that keep well in your kitchen and supplement with fresher items where needed to create hybrid dishes that won’t put a considerable strain on profit margins or your procurement process.

A Helping of Hunger

In business, one of the most popular pieces of advice given to entrepreneurs is that they need to create their catalog of items based on what their customers want— not what they think their customers want.

Although it’s very possible that you’ve gotten into the restaurant business because of your love affair with food, your tastes should not dictate the menu. Test the popularity of new dishes with limited time specials and use a restaurant POS system to track the popularity of menu items and ingredients. This will help you weed out unprofitable items and adopt a practice of continual improvement — which will translate into stable profits.

A Plethora of Pricing

Your restaurant’s menu prices can make or break your business. But how can you be sure if you’re getting it right? For most aspiring (or growing) restaurateurs, the trial-and-error method isn’t something that their budget can handle. Getting it right — or as close to right as possible — the first time is essential for the health and longevity of your restaurant business.

Making decisions about your pricing structure can be challenging— and let’s face it, mimicking the menu of a successful nearby restaurant, or trying to compete on pricing isn’t a viable business plan. These are all tried-and-true pricing strategies, but the right answer for your restaurant menu might be a little more complicated than choosing a single approach.

Ready, set, take notes! And don’t forget to keep your own restaurant menu pricing strategy in mind as you read through!

Taking the Competition Into Account

While you shouldn’t necessarily let other restaurants in your area dictate your pricing, you shouldn’t leave it out of the equation, either. From a diner’s perspective, the patrons that are price sensitive are likely always going to be price sensitive — competing in a “race to the bottom” is only going to hurt your local restaurant scene as a whole.

Instead, consider that competing restaurants with seemingly low prices may have had the time to forge relationships with suppliers, local farms, and other resources — time and equity you may not have had the chance to put in yet. A better approach is to charge a reasonable price that supports a sustainable profit margin — and don’t be afraid to price your menu items a little above the “other guys,” either.

There’s an argument to be made for price dictating perceived quality, and if you can’t afford to keep the lights on and the staff paid, the quality and care you put into your dishes will be a moot point. Remember, it’s always easier to run specials and price breaks later on rather than scaring off loyal customers by raising menu prices.

Determine Why Your Restaurant Is Worth Visiting

How would you convince a complete stranger that they should try your restaurant for lunch or dinner, over another? Your unique market offering will not only help guide your pricing strategy, but it will also help you determine what items should go on your restaurant menu.

For example, if you pride yourself on organic ingredients, your prices can reflect the higher-quality food items that your establishment has to offer. On the other hand, if you’re running a fast casual business, you may want to cater at lower prices?

Charge for the experience that you offer your customers, not just the food — your diners will be looking to indulge in both, and if you brand your business correctly, they’re not likely to flinch at a higher price. In a nutshell, your ambiance and target demographic should always be a factor in menu pricing. Bottom line, no one wants to pay caviar prices for a hot dog platter.

SEE ALSO: How To Attract More Restaurant Customers On The Cheap

Profit is King

No chef with grand designs likes to be brought back to earth by a checkbook, but sustainable profit is the most skillful dish you’ll ever prepare in business. Determine how much it costs you to make a given dish — including facilities, labor, and ingredients — and make sure your menu pricing is beating that number.

By concentrating on a per-dish cost, you’ll be better able to see where your money makers and losers are on the menu. Don’t be surprised if you find some “sleeper hits” among your dishes, as well as plates you’re practically paying to serve. A lot of restaurants get caught up with innovating the menu once they get their proverbial feet under them and forget about finances. You should always know how much every dish on your menu costs to make — this will also help you figure out “special” pricing for events or catering that still keeps you in a sustainable profit margin.
Here are some of the categories to keep in mind:

  • The DIRECT costs of making your food need to include the actual ingredients (including cooking oils and condiments), the sourcing for those ingredients, and the average waste associated with food that doesn’t get used.
  • The OVERHEAD costs should include facility necessities, such as rent or lease, payroll for employees, utilities, and ongoing “hidden” costs, such as soap for dishwashing or disposable cutlery and straws.
  • The PREP costs of food include the employee hours and effort necessary to get food ready to be served, such as traveling to the market, washing, dicing, freezing, thawing, and mixing.
  • And, finally, the INDIRECT costs of food include advertising your restaurant, the effort taken to hire, manage, and fire staff, and all of the other expenses that keep the doors open.

Once you have firm numbers in these categories, you can more accurately forecast the cost of a given menu or dish, order in bulk more accurately to reduce waste, and know how much you can reasonably charge your customers while still making a profit for your business.

Master the Art of Menu Design

Your menu design is a reflection of your establishment. Make sure that the layout of your restaurant menu follows the path a diner’s eyes — and their stomach — are most likely to take. A meal begins with appetizers, and that’s how most menus start.

Picture for a moment, holding a menu in your hands and opening the first page. The appetizers are likely listed in the top left-hand side, aren’t they? While your dishes should push boundaries with surprise and delight, hungry diners don’t want to have to go on a scavenger hunt to find what they want — stick to tried-and-true layouts whenever possible.

In today’s digital world, finding an inexpensive restaurant menu maker or template is easy. You can use an online program like Canva, iMenuPro, 99 Designs, or even classics like Microsoft Word to create the actual visual portion of your menu, but keep it concise.

It’s easy to get carried away with visual balance and end up with more pages than your menu really needs. As a good rule of thumb, keep your menu to four or five pages at the most, and avoid writing a lengthy food item descriptions since this can cause analysis paralysis.

If you’re tempted to skip these essential steps and “wing it,” remember: If you decide to expand your restaurant or apply for a business loan, granular detail almost always helps your case. Without a firm idea of how much you’re spending and making – both monetarily and time-wise – through your menu, you won’t put forth a very positive picture on paper to financial professionals. For the sake of your business future, your finances, and yes, even your employees, take the time to go over your menu setup with a fine-toothed comb at least once a year. Success will taste that much sweeter when the hard work is done!

SEE ALSO: Thrive on a Dime: How to Save Money Running Your Restaurant

Yamarie Grullon

Yamarie Grullon has years of experience creating helpful & engaging content for small business owners. As Director of Content Strategy at ShopKeep, the #1-rated iPad Point of Sale System, Yamarie provides merchants with practical advice on all things related to business or point of sale.