“A menu is the face of a restaurant and its primary means of representation. It informs the customer about the offerings and helps them to ascertain their selection. It helps the customers identify the specialties on offer and simplify the ordering process,” points out Executive Chef, JW Marriott Mumbai, Juhu, Chef Vishal Atreya.
In any foodservice operations, the most important elements are the concept of the F&B outlet, food offerings and service. “Theme, environment, music, uniform, crockery, cutlery, tables, seating arrangement, décor, all play an important role in the food and beverage experience. But it is only when they all come together that a guest enjoys a fulfilling dining experience. The glue holding all these elements together is the menu, which helps to narrate the story of the restaurant and be the document that reflects the brand’s vision,“ states Executive Sous Chef, JW Marriott Mumbai, Sahar, Chef Amitesh Virdi.
When one talks of a menu being identified with a restaurant, it can be region or cuisine specific, which is what makes the restaurant stand out. Unfortunately, a lack of skilled labour and a penchant for biblical menus make it harder for the staff to give out their best.
The menu and its application to food go back almost a millennium when the Song Dynasty in China had restaurants listing the items being served. A Latin word, ‘menu’ indicates a resume of sorts that was and still is listed on blackboards with chalk to this day and age in several restaurants across the globe. Even though menu art as well as the way one looks at the menu has changed over the years, the old style of chalk on a board for specials still exists. All the chefs spoken to for this story say that a menu must always be identified with the restaurant and chef, as one is paying for both the food experience and ambience.“At the most basic, a menu is indicative of the cuisines available, food preparations offered and their corresponding prices in a restaurant,” says Executive Chef, The Westin Pune, Koregaon Park, Chef Rahul Kaushik.
As foodservice is a diverse industry, food retail outlets have much to offer. It is, therefore, important that customers know what’s on offer and the choices available. Take, for example, the menu at Sheraton Grand Pune Bund Garden Hotel, which carefully describes, in detail, the cuisines and offerings at its restaurants.
“We have theme dinners at Feast – our three meal restaurant – and our menu helps the guests to choose a dish of his/ her choice. For instance, on every Wednesday, we serve oriental specialties including a variety of sushi and tempuras. On Fridays, we offer Mexican delicacies and, on Saturdays, we have Lebanese food on the floor,” informs Executive Chef Nader Sheikh.
“Apart from serving its main purpose of informing the guests about the cuisines and food preparations in a restaurant, creating a menu is the first step in stimulating the taste and preparing a guest to make an informed decision before placing an order. The menu provides information on food preparations with descriptions, flavours, spice levels and pricing,” says Executive Chef, Eastin Residences, Vadodara, Chef Shashidhar Roka.
A menu is the first thing a guest sees on entering a restaurant and it has the potential to give the diner a full culinary experience. But a badly written menu and a deficient staff can lead to a dining disaster.
“The important thing to keep in mind is that the design of the menu should mimic the dining experience. The language, font and content should resonate with the target audience. Fancy words do not render a dish more saleable. The descriptions should be concise and clear. The courses should be mentioned in the same sequence as they are consumed in the course of daily routine,” says Chef Vishal Atreya.
While the design and content of the menu encourages guests to place an order, the style and layout are equally important. People go to restaurants for many reasons: social, business and out of habit. The individual and the situation will often dictate the way they read the menu. But whether it’s done impulsively or at leisure, the design of the menu can still influence their choices. Research says guests lose interest in reading the menu 109 seconds after it has been handed over, reinforcing the crucial role that the design of the menu plays in grabbing a diner’s attention.
“To make the menu user-friendly and save on time, it is categorized in different sections or components – appetizers, soups, main course, desserts, etc. The menu may also have a section of set dishes depending on the style of the restaurant. Breaking the menu into different components helps the guest to order faster and find exactly what he is looking for depending on his appetite,” says Executive Chef, Renaissance Mumbai Convention Centre, Chef Sahil Arora. A well-designed menu is crisp, clear and highlights a selection of food preparations under various categories.
A menu, which is skilfully laid out in words, has the potential to increase business. Seasoned restaurateurs agree that a well-written menu, which is not cluttered, reaches out to the people.
“The font of letters should be appropriate, simple, and easy to read. There should be a one-line description to describe each dish with the use of an appropriate color and pictures,” says Chef Rahul Kaushik of The Westin Pune, Koregaon Park.
He adds that a menu should have a story to tell and the starting point of the menu should mention the Chef special/ Star dishes. “Another important consideration when designing a menu is not to remind the guest that they are spending too much; thus the scanning rule is to be followed,” explains Chef Nader Sheikh of Sheraton Grand Pune Bund Garden Hotel.
Menu engineering is another important element in menu designing and it involves categorizing food depending on its popularity and profitability. Some dishes are high on profit but less popular whereas others are very popular but yield less profit.
As food descriptions on the menu can have a profound effect on the sales potential, menus should follow a pecking order under which meals are divided into categories based on their popularity and profi tability.
According to Chef Shashidhar Roka of Eastin Residences, Vadodara, “A menu should be divided into four quadrants wherein each quadrant plays an important role in ensuring that the food preparations are covered. Each menu item must be placed under one section of the four quadrants for maximum effectiveness. The quadrants should have a hierarchical order with the top-selling items categorized as ‘Stars’ to reflect high profitability and high popularity. The next category in the quadrant should be labeled ‘Plow-horses’ to denote items with low profitability and high popularity. The third quadrant should be identified as ‘Puzzles’ to describe offerings with high profitability and low popularity. The last on the list should be termed ‘Dogs’ comprising low profitability and low popularity items.”
Elaborating further, he says that when menu items are placed under the respective quadrant, the restaurant can maximize profitability as well as ensure guest satisfaction.
To add greater credibility and burnish the credentials of the establishment even more, a restaurant should look to source genuine and certified organic products, and use the term ‘organic’ in the menu. Descriptors like 'inecaught', 'farm-raised', or 'locally-sourced' are also big turn-ons for customers.
“Creating a successful menu design for a restaurant is a lot more than just picking the right dishes and pricing them appropriately. We, at JW Marriott Mumbai Sahar, believe that the layout, key messaging, positioning, typography and color of the menu play an important role in attracting customers for repeat visits, besides also encouraging them to order the best or the most profitable entrees. The most important component to keep in mind when designing a menu is that it must allow the business owner more control over his business and enable the kitchen to focus on producing excellent food,” mentions Chef Amitesh Virdi, pointing out that when curating a menu it is important to know of the target audience and their food preferences. “Understanding customer demographics helps one to narrow in on food items based on their relevancy,” he adds.
Concurs Chef Shashidhar Roka of Eastin Residences, Vadodara, "The menu is designed to cater to a certain clientele or target customers that patronize the restaurant. The target customers could be families, youth, young couples, college students, etc., depending on the branding and location of a particular restaurant. Once the clientele is defined by the restaurant management, the menu is prepared to cater to the needs and requirements of the clients in focus. This induces footfalls at the restaurant as the correct clientele has been tapped.”
Merchandising techniques can also be employed to further highlight signature dishes and specialty items, which help to invoke an appropriate sense of a restaurant’s personality.
A good menu takes into account several factors in its planning. Not only does one not repeat the main ingredients, but one also doesn’t repeat a culinary technique through courses. For instance, you can’t have a soufflé as a starter and then serve up an airy dessert, both of which require the same set of culinary techniques. Copying menus from other restaurants is again a brainless way to go. While some cafes and diners have video loops of their specials, there is something special about being handed a café menu, which has been printed on stiff paper and presented well.
Planning and designing a menu might take a few weeks or sometimes even months. One needs to get the mechanics of menu engineering right because that is what everything boils down to when planning and designing a menu. The mechanics of menu engineering involves the interplay of various factors – striking the right balance of nutrients, placing the dishes strategically, understanding the profitability and popularity of the dishes you want to put on the menu, and a lot more.
“It has to be ensured that the dishes that are finally put on a menu are popular locally. A menu should also have other kinds of dishes that guests have heard about and would like to indulge in. A dish might not earn a profit but has to be there on the menu because the guests want it. A guest generally walks into a restaurant with some company and they can have different tastes and preferences. The challenge lies in catering to those tastes and preferences of your guests,” says Chef Nader Sheikh of Sheraton Grand Pune Bund Garden Hotel.
“Bearing in mind the guests’ preferences, a team of chefs, including the Executive Chef, Executive Sous Chef, Executive Pastry Chefs and Specialty Head Chefs work along with the Food & Beverage Director to finalize the menu. The team checks each menu item on various parameters such as plating, serving ease, authenticity, etc.,” points out Chef Amitesh Virdi of JW Marriott Mumbai, Sahar.
According to Chef Nader Sheikh, “A menu is finalized with the consent of experienced people from the food and beverage background. While it is definitely the chefs who will prepare the food, but an experienced professional such as food and beverage director helps to bring in a lot of ideas, which are meshed and blended with the chefs’ inputs. But it is ultimately the General Manager who takes the final call as he has been in the industry for years and has the knowledge of the nitty-gritty to run a high-end top food service establishment.”
But it goes without saying that menu planning and its finalizing is a tedious drawn-out process and it involves the collective efforts of the chefs, service personnel and marketing experts.
The aim of all the brainstorming is to create a refined menu that plays out harmoniously in a well-turned-out kitchen, giving customers not only the best of ingredients but the benefits of full culinary perfection as well. In planning a menu, a restaurant and its team focuses on the clients it wants to target, food trends in market and the philosophy of the company. For instance, JW Marriott Mumbai Sahar takes into account – in planning the menu – factors like brand compliance, resonance with the restaurant’s positioning, the quality of food and the requisite choice in the variety of dishes.
“A menu has to be balanced with respect to the diversity of ingredients and locally sourced fresh products. For example, the menu must strike a balance between meats, greens, pulses, etc. The balance between carbohydrates, protein, starch and other nutrients is important too. The diversity of regions must also be looked into. We also take into account the preferences of vegans, pescatarians, vegetarians, non-vegetarians and those that favour gluten-free diets and other specialty foods,” explains Chef Amitesh Virdi of JW Marriott Mumbai, Sahar.
Season and availability of fresh produce also plays a vital role in menu planning. Many menus go a step further by highlighting the origins of ingredients to even making their desserts in-house, especially in the case of ice-creams. Day specials are another good way of attracting customers. Dishes, courses and pairings, which complement each other, are also effective.
“Be it any cuisine, if seasonal produce is not put on the menu, the flavour of dishes will not be great. Additionally, non-seasonal produce will cost more because of the transportation expense involved and will also contribute to a greater carbon footprint. Also, when planning a menu, one needs to take into account considerations of the space available, equipment, and work flow needs so as to work efficiently,” says Chef Sahil Arora of Renaissance Mumbai Convention Centre.
Pricing is another key factor of consideration in good menus. As a price-conscious nation where people are given to budgeting, it pays to emphasize on menus for single diners and helps to widen one’s customer base. Very often, highlighting food preferences with good pricing make for repeat orders. When one is being stymied on a high price for a single dish, it is unlikely that a person will order more dishes. The key is to excite the customer into ordering more food; hence, dishes must be priced accordingly. A good way to do it is to conduct a survey with the aim of checking on the food preparations and their pricing in competitor restaurants. This allows the management to get a handle on key issues in menu planning.
“Food preparations on the menus of competitor restaurants provide an understanding of the kind of clientele patronizing their restaurants. A few food preparations need to be similar to those of the competitors when preparing the menu. But a diverse selection of new preparations needs to be added to encourage clients to shift from the competitors,” points out Chef Shashidhar Roka of Eastin Residences, Vadodara.
Conducting and analyzing the survey also helps to grasp the dynamics of pricing. “A competitor’s menu will allow for an understanding on the purchasing power of residents of the area (within a 7 km radius). This will, in turn, assist the management to decide the food preparations that can be placed on the menu,” adds Chef Roka.
Special attention should also be paid to striking the right balance between high cost and low priced dishes as well as on creating a diverse menu and also catering to the needs of a specified clientele. “The menu should have choices when it comes to comfort food and those for the kids. They should be rightly priced as it has been observed that people want to eat comfort food again and again,” says Chef Rahul Kaushik of The Westin Pune, Koregaon Park.
The success of a restaurant depends on the menu – the way it’s designed to communicate with the customer. “A properly designed menu is an effective spokesperson for the brand positioning and the story of the restaurant among the competition set. Additionally, it’s an internal and an effective marketing and communication tool for the restaurant. At one go, the customer comes to know about what the specialty of the chef is and how the dishes are priced,” points out Sahil Arora, Executive Chef, Renaissance Mumbai Convention Centre.
“Menu should encompass everything that is on offer – food as well as beverages. It should be carefully planned out and formatted to reflect the theme of the place,” avers Chef Atreya of JW Marriott Mumbai, Juhu. However, he cautions that menus should not be designed to have something for everyone. “If done that way, they lose their character and identity. Rather it should be distinctly interwoven around the concept and theme of the restaurant. It should also be clearly reflective of the style of food and cuisine being served.”
To a trained eye, it is rather easy to spot the difference between a well-turned out menu created by chefs and that created by a garden variety food professional. Unfortunately, many a restaurant has been known to get its menu created by individuals who are not even part of the food business. These menus lack finesse and the recipes aren’t even tried and tested.
It follows that menus that showcase the chef’s talent have a better potential of contributing to the establishment’s success. “A menu should also talk about the chef and what flair he brings to the table with his unique cooking style, which sets the restaurant apart from others,” underscores Arora.
“The ideal focus of a menu is, of course, the food the restaurant offers but a menu is a marketing tool as well. It conveys what the restaurant is all about along with the authenticity of the dish, how it is prepared and also the chef preparing it,” reveals Chef Nader Sheikh of Sheraton Grand Pune Bund Garden Hotel.
Such menus are more on the lines of a money-making racket and can cause potential disaster for the restaurant and its reputation. Moreover, employing such a stratagem also hints at the lack of faith that restaurateurs have in a chef’s potential to create a menu.
“Food preparations work best when they are complemented with a beverage or a dessert that can go along with it, which also is the main reason why some of the restaurants come up with set-meal menus. Adding to that, the food can also be complemented by a mix of different set of beverages/ cocktails, which are specially prepared to go with a particular dish. This process is known as ‘pairing’ wherein the food preparations are complemented with a special beverage that enhances the overall dining experience for a guest,” opines Shashidhar Roka of Eastin Residences, Vadodara.
According to Chef Rahul Kaushik of The Westin Pune, Koregaon Park, “A menu totally depends upon an outlet’s concept. So whether it’s a Subway, family restaurant, barista, bar restaurant or fine dining, each type of restaurant has its own style of food menu to serve with pricing, USP and style of serving.”
So a specialty restaurant will have its own special dish whereas a three meal all-day dining restaurant will have a different one.
“The USP of an outlet depends on what restaurant format it is and a menu has the power to highlight all the possible USPs. For instance, the picture of a sizzler with a wonderful description can be one such way to highlight the USP. A menu of a specialty restaurant will boast about the culture and cuisine specific to it whereas that of an all-day dining restaurant will highlight all its popular dishes,” says Nader Sheikh of Sheraton Grand Pune Bund Garden Hotel.
One also needs to be mindful of the fact that a lot many dishes on the menu necessarily might not appeal to all. “There are restaurants that are single product/ dish oriented but are very successful as they specialize in what they do and are known for that. So care should be taken to not get carried away by putting up the choices of all customers and try to be a restaurant for all,” says Sahil Arora of Renaissance Mumbai Convention Centre.
The menu has grown from the days of an a la carte menu – which lists everything that the restaurant serves – to a table d’ hote (TDH) menu, which lists out a fixed set of dishes. The concept of a biblical menu that lists a host of dishes is a trend that has been dying out since over a decade ago. Smaller, manageable listings are the call of the day; not only do these allow for a continuous change but they also make for a smaller inventory. While an in-depth menu or a lengthy one caters to or targets a wide spectrum of customers but, at the same time, it also makes an unceasing demand for increasing the amount of ingredients required and the labour required to run the operations, thus increasing the chances for food cost and labour cost to ratchet up. Also, a lengthy menu gives a confusing signal to the guest as to what the style and concept of the restaurant is and what would be the specialty of the chef.
“A lengthy menu portrays a confusing brand image to customers since the focus of the restaurant is to provide quantity and cater to the masses. On the other hand, a concise menu attracts a select targeted audience and is very clear on the specialty and authenticity being put on the table. In this case, the brand image of the outlet comes out very clear and the guests who come are not at the establishment for the sake of experimenting. The negative for a concise menu is that customers who are looking for more offerings feel deprived,” says Chef Sahil Arora of Renaissance Mumbai Convention Centre.
According to Chef Amitesh Virdi of JW Marriott Mumbai, Sahar, “In the case of a concise menu, it is easy to prepare each dish more authentically. However, if guest is looking for a larger spread, an in-depth menu will able to offer an extensive spread but may face the challenge of losing its focus point owing to an extravagant approach.”
Echoing a similar sentiment, Chef Vishal Atreya of JW Marriott Mumbai Juhu, says: “I am always in favor of a concise menu. In today’s world, nobody has the time and patience to scroll though detailed descriptors. Too much information also leaves the audience confused and may negatively influence the selection procedure. It also delays the ordering time and hence may result in lesser turnaround of tables.”
However, a limited selection of food preparations can be a problem for restaurants that attract consumers from diversified backgrounds and cultures.
“A guest going to a fine dining restaurant would want to sit and relax and has lesser limitations on the expense. Thus, it is essential here to have an in-depth menu. A short and concise menu here would simply fail as the diner will feel the options are limited. An in-depth menu should include recommendations for food and wine pairing too. Diners from a younger age group might prefer a short and concise menu in an establishment where they are likely to spend less time. Time and money goes in proportion. The more time a guest spends in a restaurant, the more he or she spends,” feels Nader Sheikh of Sheraton Grand Pune Bund Garden Hotel.
A lot of chefs today see a menu as an extension of their skill and creativity based on the theme of the restaurant and not just a list of dishes. Menu creation has become more personalized in today’s culinary climate, especially in restaurants that have a seasonal or cyclic menu. Changing a menu not only caters to the customer’s palate but is also an acknowledgement of the fact that they are a travelled and discernible lot. It also hints at the chef’s acceptance of change in the current trends.
Menus of the future will look to be creative with a whole new dimension. They will range from edible menus to visual menus or a combination of both using modern day technologies.
The tablet or i-Pad on the table, the latest gadget of showcasing a menu, along with high resolution images, is replacing card paper menus with dodgy images.
Visuals on television screens showing chefs in action with their finished dishes are proving to be more effective than the pain old card and paper menus. The old order is clearly on its way out as new techniques of showcasing the menu grow in vogue.