​Menu Evolutions: Detriment Or Redemption?

Author: John Fay   Date Posted:14 March 2015 

There is an odd, rarely talked about habit that some people have when they visit new restaurants: stealing menus. A few of them are able to justify and rationalize this crime, at least in their own minds, because their jobs require them to review food or rate and write about restaurants, and the menu can be a nifty reference for later. However, a good number of these people are not foodies, bloggers, or restaurant experts, but are merely tourists who, ever so discreetly, stuff menus into their carry-ons just as they would seashells into a beach bag. Menus are souvenirs that are more tangible than uploading pictures of the actual meal on Instagram. Moreover, the thrill of the act is a welcome bonus.

It seems that the jig is up, however, and restaurants are developing ways to eliminate this exceedingly nefarious act. Some have simply printed out cheap, disposable menus (and the word “menus” here is used benevolently; a more accurate term might be “lists of food”) that everyone is most definitely free to take home or use as placemats. Other establishments, however, have gone the more expensive route and have actually replaced traditional menus with iPads and tablets- some bolted to the table, and some diligently retrieved by the staff. From here though, the developments get pretty interesting. Possibilities are, after all, endless with these gadgets.

One can simply take images of the menu and load them onto the chosen gadget, but technology did not get to where it is today without the human desire to exploit and utilize it. Now there are actual apps that lessen the load of notoriously overworked servers and streamline restaurant management (e.g. Wine & Dine, MenuPad, or customized apps ordered by the establishment). Instead of placing their orders verbally, customers can now send over the information directly to the kitchen and cashier. This hasn’t quite eliminated the need for servers, however. Developers have yet to create an app that can hand deliver food to tables, take imperfectly grilled steak back to the chef, or politely offer to refill someone’s glass of water.

There are, of course, Restaurant Menu Design Variation – Pros and Cons, and the move from print to digital definitely has them. Aside from those already mentioned, pros of digital menus also include the ability to feature high resolution images without the cost of advanced printing methods (though admittedly, there’s also the initial purchase cost of the devices and the maintenance of custom apps to consider) and with the ease of the editing process. If anything needs to be changed- whether it’s pictures, text, or layout- one can simply alter the app’s content, thus eliminating yet another printing cost.

The disadvantages of going digital, however, are significant. Tablets and iPads are not exempt from the perennial unreliability of technology. Bugs and crashes occur, and restaurants don’t necessarily have the resources to provide advanced troubleshooting on the fly. Orders may not transmit correctly, which could prove disastrous in the kitchen and on the receipt. All of these factors affect overall customer experience, and that can cascade down to online reviews (which have birthed, resuscitated, and killed many a business).

Considering all these factors, it’s no wonder job opportunities for restaurant staff continue to exist, and the printed menu is still the standard and remains an expected staple for most food service establishments.

Issues relating to Restaurant Menu Design Variation – Pros and Cons however still apply to hard copies. The human mind likes to create patterns, relations, and familiarity. Change can be jarring, even when it’s on something as seemingly innocuous as a menu.

There are several reasons one might consider changing the layout or overall design of a menu. It could be an issue of supply, sales, or branding, among others. In the past, things were simpler; restaurants provided food, and gave out a list of options (sometimes these were not options but a mere announcement of what was available at the time) to people who wanted to eat some. However, with the evolution of capitalism and the progression of marketing techniques, the menu became more than a list; it was an element of sales and brand identity. Studies on customer behavior became relevant, and all of a sudden, the development of a menu now required some understanding of human- particularly consumer- psychology.

To illustrate, here is an example. The largest pictures on a menu may not necessarily be the most popular order items. They are featured for several reasons. They could be the most profitable products, after considerations regarding costs of production and pricing. They could also be slow-moving items that feature ingredients with short shelf lives. By default, the human eye goes straight to the biggest, brightest, or most prominent objects in a layout, and the human mind interprets these as the most important and therefore best choices. There’s no sales talk required of the service staff here; it’s all subliminal messaging.

Based on customer feedback, sales history, and perhaps even a surplus or shortage in supply, a restaurant can then decide to change their menu design to adapt. The expected output may improve profitability, image, food execution, and even operations.

These variations provide certain risks though. Patrons may miss scrapped menu items, change previously profitable ordering behaviors, or get the impression that the chef’s confidence in certain offerings have wavered. All this can have a negative effect on the brand.

Definitely, there are serious implications to changing a restaurant’s menu, and careful study and consideration must be employed before taking that step. Whatever form it takes, the menu is not merely a list, but a restaurant’s soul illustrated for consumer comprehension.

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