The Guide to Menu Design
From wording and white space to infographics and photos, all the details that make print menus pop.
For San Diego seafood institution the Brigantine, the road to a new menu began with an old website.
The Brigantine is one of those restaurants that’s been around for quite a while. Founded in 1969 by Mike and Barb Morton—and now run by their son Mike Jr., who is president and CEO—the Brigantine began as a lone location near the Point Loma fishing fleet in California. In the 46 ensuing years, the restaurant group has grown to six Brigantine locations and six Miguel’s Cocina restaurants in San Diego County. Though growth was fresh, the website built in 2007 had gone stale.
“It’s like a lot of brands out there, whether it’s a restaurant or not, they have a historic website that they’ve been building on top of,” says Scott Mires, partner/creative director of agency MiresBall and leader on the Brigantine’s rebranding project. “When we talked to the Brigantine, we said, ‘It’s not just your website; your brand is not firing on all cylinders. Maybe we should step back and look at that, because if you’re going to have this nicer website, you should be speaking to the audience in a cool way across all mediums.’”
Along with a new website, identity system, and brand aesthetic, MiresBall wrangled with the Brigantine menu. It was out of touch with the restaurant’s true style, Mires says, intimating the wrong information. “The previous menu had multiple type styles and things were just stuck all over. The logo was in the bottom right corner running vertically up the side. It looked like somebody had pieced it together like a collage of typography; it was terrible.
“And yet, when you eat there, they’re really organized, your food comes out quickly, and it’s always hot,” he adds. The menu would not have implied so. “Every single point of your brand should deliver that consistency and overall message.”
A restaurant menu sends guests a message about the establishment as a whole, from its level of sophistication to how much care is put into the sourcing of ingredients. More than a list, a menu is a handheld storyteller, and everything, from the organization of the sections and physical size of the menu down to the white space, colors, and typography, combine to create this autobiography. The narrative a restaurant menu presents will influence, and in some instances determine, how much money consumers are willing to spend there.
“The menu is the No. 1 selling tool behind the server,” says Brian Haffeman, founder and creative director at Copper Blue Creative, which last year redesigned the menu for Coco’s Bakery Restaurant, a Western-themed family eatery with more than 110 locations on the West Coast.
“The server, she is really there to educate and to sell, but there’s a little potential for inconsistency,” Haffeman explains. “The menu is the one area where a restaurant can control the presentation [of information].”
Menus of 2015 are zeroing in on three key motifs: freshness, sophistication, and simplicity. Not one expert or restaurateur interviewed suggested eateries are adding items to their menus like they did in decades past; instead, restaurants are slimming the number of options while upping the quality. Restaurants are simultaneously emphasizing that fresh—which goes hand in hand with seasonality, as some operators choose that description instead—is of utmost importance.
First, restaurateurs need an explicit purpose for redesigning the menu.
When approaching a menu redesign, many restaurateurs jump straight to dictating the theme of the new menu. Not so fast, Haffeman says; before talking theme, a restaurant must first establish an objective or motivation for the new menu.
“One of the first things we do is define the main idea the restaurant wants to convey,” Haffeman says. Coco’s, for example, debuted its refreshed menu in July, but the move came a year after leaders had injected the brand with higher-quality ingredients that were on-trend with marketplace demands. Farm-fresh vegetables such as arugula, ancient grains, and even barramundi fish landed starring roles in Coco’s new line-up.
While the family-dining restaurant could have restricted its transition to more premium ingredients to the back of the house, it wanted to trumpet the positive changes coming out of its kitchens, says Keith Marron Sr., director of marketing for Coco’s owner, Catalina Restaurant Group.
“Coco’s is a brand that’s been around since the ’40s, and because it’s a very old brand, people have a perception of what Coco’s is, and we’re trying to change that,” Marron Sr. says. “What better way to do that than the menu, which is the main sales tool we have?”
With the fresh theme locked in, Haffeman and his team could move on to conceptualizing a look and feel for the menu at Coco’s.
As operators determine an objective for their menu revamp, it is also the perfect time to pinpoint the eatery’s strengths, says Maria Di Bello, an interactive designer who in 2012 redesigned the menu for Murphy’s Restaurant & Pub in New Paltz, New York. Di Bello recognized wings and hamburgers were the restaurant’s greatest assets, based on guest feedback and kitchen fervor, and her design consequently gave a greater emphasis to those staples.
In some cases, a restaurateur will want to update her menu but not know which direction to take. In these situations, Haffeman consults the chef, who can convey a vision and directive for the food. This also hands the restaurant a story to weave into the menu.
“If it’s from a marketing standpoint that the owner wants to update the menu, she might be looking to us for an expert opinion on how to drive revenues,” Haffeman explains. “But for us, we need a backstory. That way, whatever we come up with on the marketing side is in line with that [vision]. Any consumer can pick up on a disconnect, like if we’re talking about value meals in our marketing while the chef is presenting high-end steak and lobster.”
It’s imperative restaurants pare down the menu so it is both approachable for customers and manageable for the kitchen.
One complication Haffeman often runs into is restaurants that have too many items on the menu. Chefs have so many wonderful ideas, he says, but it’s important for restaurants to discuss how consumers will perceive the offerings. “We need to ask, ‘Do we really need six hamburgers?’”
Thus, a menu redesign becomes a perfect opportunity for restaurants to re-evaluate offerings and consider consumers’ temporal dining habits, which of late are to seek out restaurants that focus on sourcing and preparation.
Dan Taylor knows the struggle of having an overzealous list of dishes. “Our menu was humungous. We had too many options going on,” says the kitchen manager of the Peacock Garden Cafe in Coconut Grove, Florida.
Taylor says the restaurant cut about 45 items when it launched a new menu in the fall of 2013, removing options from appetizers to entrées. The primary focus of the cuts was the brunch menu. The purpose was to encourage guests to spend more time soaking in the atmosphere of the restaurant, which has outdoor seating in a picturesque tropical garden.
“We wanted to streamline the menu so people could enjoy the ambiance more,” Taylor says, “and also for our kitchen to have fewer things to cook, so they could give better flavor and more care to the food that was going out.”
While ambiance is one reason to slim down the menu, another is lack of clarity, which can ultimately lead to lost revenue. A large number of items makes it onerous for guests to navigate the menu; they wind up shuffling pages, flipping through a novel masquerading as a menu. This even contributes to slower table turns.
Di Bello, the interactive designer who gave Murphy’s menu a facelift, saw firsthand how guests were struggling with the Irish pub’s menu. Previously, it was housed on a one-page, double-sided paper placemat. She waitressed at Murphy’s while attending school in New Paltz and says the menu was a constant source of difficulty. “People ordering always used to ask me what I would get here, because they always seemed kind of confused with the menu and didn’t want to bother with it anymore.”
Morton Jr. at the Brigantine took a scientific approach to paring down the items when MiresBall helped him redesign the list. He first analyzed the overall product mix report from the point-of-sale system, and considered what was selling and what wasn’t. He then chatted with chefs and the kitchen staff to hear their inclinations on which dishes were working and combined the gut feel with the POS report to pare down from there.
Once operators settle on the proper number of items to list on the menu, they can move on to tackling the actual order of the menu’s sections and dishes.
The best way to organize sections, from appetizers to entrées, has as much to do with psychology as with the order in which consumers eat.
Research suggests consumers’ eyes immediately fall on the upper right section of a menu. Restaurants can take advantage of this by placing a special section there, something they want to highlight. At the Brigantine, for example, it’s intentional that Seasonal Selections—a new section added with the redesign that underscores the restaurant’s commitment to seasonality—earned the top-right placement on the one-page menu.
Not every restaurant follows this train of thought; many menus walk the guest through courses in the order she would be served in the restaurant. Appetizers and beverages come first, followed by soups and salads, sandwiches and burgers, entrées and specialties, and finally desserts. Some restaurants save beverages for the final page, as well, and use the front-page real estate for house offerings. Saving beverages for last is also a method that encourages guests to flip through the entire menu faster.
Increasingly, it has become important to pay attention to consumer requests for healthier dine-out options. Heart Healthy, Calorie Conscious, Totally Trim, and similar sections have popped up on menus, and it’s smart for these sections to precede the entrées, according to Haffeman.
“We like to provide and showcase some of the healthier items first and make that recommendation,” Haffeman says. “We always want to showcase that our menu is going to be healthier, and allow indulgent dishes to fall after.”
In every section on the menu, the first and last items are the most important, says Clark Wolf, president and founder of hospitality consultant firm Clark Wolf Company. The first item tells guests what kind of place the restaurant wants to be, and the last item is the grounding principle.
“If you put a healthy dish first, it’s going to suggest that you want to be a healthy food spot,” he says. “And if you put it last, it means that’s the grounding principle. Steak would be last on an entrée list, and usually fish is first. Those are the traditional ways. But if you put vegetarian lasagna last, you’re saying, ‘Our staple is a vegetarian lasagna.’”
Restaurants have varying opinions on how they organize dishes under a header. When listing dishes under a section such as Entrées, some place pricier items toward the bottom of the menu, to present an air of affordability; some present the natural hierarchy of dishes, arranging them from lightest to heaviest; others stack each section with favorites and popular orders up top; and still others approach the organization with higher-margin items in mind.
If something is placed at the top of a section, “that means there’s a desire to have you think about that item sooner rather than later,” Wolf adds.
Beau’s Grillery is a modern American restaurant from Chef Zack Sklar in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. It took the spot of Beau Jack’s, a restaurant that opened in the mid-1970s and quickly became a neighborhood staple, setting the standard for bar-and-grill fare in the community. Chef Sklar stepped in last year with an intention to modernize the spot, installing a large, wood-fired grill and rotisserie as he updated the look of the restaurant and feel of the menu.
Working with him was Beau’s Grillery Executive Chef Daniel Campbell, who says the menu at Beau’s Grillery takes care to highlight the restaurant’s signature dishes, such as the Rotisserie Prime Rib and Mushroom Pasta. Both sit at the bottom of the Entrées section with a centered alignment, which sets them apart from the two columns of entrée offerings, which range from $13 for the Old Fashioned Burger to $35 for the 14-ounce Prime NY Strip.
“We wanted to strategically place our more expensive items a little further down the menu,” Chef Campbell says. “We wanted the appearance of the menu to look affordable, and we put some popular items with a good amount of perceived value up top, front and center.”
Chef Campbell says the restaurant also judged the placement of higher-margin items on the menu. “Our burger and things we knew would have a good perceived value and be winners for us are highlighted on the menu. There are no duds on that menu and everything sells well,” he adds.
Chef Kevin Sbraga, who owns Sbraga and The Fat Ham restaurants in Philadelphia, ranks dishes in his sections from lightest to heaviest. At Sbraga, the vegetarian dishes always sit at the top of the list, while supplements and more luxurious tastes are saved for the bottom.
This is the meat of the menu, where restaurateurs play with the descriptions of dishes, the spacing and typography allotted to each item, and the color and white space.
For Chef Sbraga, the aesthetic of the menus at his two Philadelphia restaurants, Sbraga and The Fat Ham, communicate cultivated simplicity. It’s an extension of the branding and design. White space is the star on his menus. Each one lists the name of the dish and its base ingredients in one line before deftly moving on to the next offering.
“The reason I like the menu to be simple is because I don’t want it to be difficult or challenging for the guest to find what they were looking for, or something they may want to try,” Chef Sbraga says.
Chef Sbraga doesn’t want back-of-the-house preparation or techniques to distract customers. A typical line on the menu at Sbraga, his modern American restaurant that opened on Philadelphia’s famed cultural street Avenue of the Arts in 2011, simply reads: Veal Shoulder: Sweetbreads. Pickled Cranberry. Mustard Greens. Yams.
The year-old Fat Ham mimics the pattern, though its ingredients are listed in crimson instead of black.
“When we list items on the menu, we try to list them in a simple way so that there is a little bit of surprise when guests try the dish,” he says. “You won’t see anything that says sautéed or cooked sous-vide or anything else like that. I want the guests to focus on the ingredients and not really worry about how it’s prepared.”
The approach works 95 to 98 percent of the time, he adds.
At any restaurant, the appearance of the menu should reflect the interior design and branding. Chef Sbraga ensures that with the simple colors on the menu, black typography, and lots of white space. Similarly, the Brigantine uses a pop of navy blue to reflect the nautical theme and seafood offerings, while landmark St. Louis diner Blueberry Hill decorates its menu with yellow and blue. It’s a color scheme that owner Joe Edwards says introduces friendly colors that imitate the interior.
A layout design is helped most by white space; the more open space on the page, the better the visual presentation for the guest.
Typography should be simple and easy to read, experts say. “That is one of my pet peeves,” Chef Sbraga acknowledges. “It’s got to be easy to read. I want my children to be able to read it, as well as an 80-year-old woman, without having to turn her head sideways and get out a flashlight trying to figure out what it says.”
Contrast between colors is an important consideration. If fonts are a color that is too close to the background shade, guests will have trouble discerning the words. For Coco’s, Haffeman considered the demographic who dines there, typically families and Baby Boomers, and styled the menu with larger-size type.
Mires, who led the Brigantine’s redesign, suggests creating a clean typography defined by simplicity. “Unless you’re a really great typographer, less is more is usually my suggestion,” he says. “The size, scale, position, contrast, legibility—unless you’re pretty darn good at it, it’s a crapshoot.”
Another deliberation is how long the description of each dish should be. Chef Sbraga, clearly, prefers an abridged approach, which fits his restaurants. However, at full-serves that cater to families, such as Coco’s and Blueberry Hill, it makes more sense to write longer descriptions so everyone from grandparents to children have an accurate notion of what they are ordering.
Generally, though, the name of the dish will do the heavy lifting, and two to three lines maximum is recommended for the description. This is often a challenge, since restaurants want to call out what’s special about the dish but also alert customers to ingredients, so they can avoid it if they have an allergy or if there is a component they don’t like.
Advanced menu makers will use photos, infographics, and design elements that draw attention to house specialties, customizable dishes, and high-margin items.
Once the typography, color scheme, and layout of the menu are set, restaurateurs can start getting fancy with photos, boxes, and infographics, all methods to draw attention to special dishes. While Coco’s has always had photography on its menu, Copper Blue Creative brought in a professional photographer and used the images on the menu to draw attention to higher-margin items and those made with premium ingredients, reinforcing the fresh branding.
“Photos sell; they really do,” says Marron Sr., the chief marketing officer of Coco’s parent company, Catalina Restaurant Group. “The items that we photograph, we’ll see three times as many sales as not-pictured items, so we try to highlight those higher-margin items through photography.”
Visual icons also communicate the message about the change toward more premium ingredients, reducing the need to explain that transition in the item’s descriptions or overstate it across the menu.
At the Brigantine, the oyster bar is a big component of the restaurant, taking more than 50 percent of the square footage at certain locations. To emphasize that the restaurant serves fresh oysters daily, MiresBall drew a box around the Oyster Bar section on the menu.
Boxes and photos work well, but another approach is to use an infographic on the menu, which is what Di Bello did for key menu items at Murphy’s. She created a graphic of a stackable burger, starting with the bun and beef, choices of toppings and cheese, and ending with the bottom bun. She also created a graphic for the wings, color-coding the choices from least spicy to hottest. “These graphics made those items pop on the menu,” she says.
Sometimes, promoting a less-dominant item is a great way to draw attention, restaurant consultant Wolf says. “If you feature a salad at TGI Fridays, it’s going to be kind of a surprise.”
The top 5 things to know when redesigning a menu:
- A layout with more white space or open space creates a better visual presentation for guests, naturally drawing their eyes to the food descriptions and design.
- Photos can upsell an item up to three times as much as not-pictured items, but is most effective if used sparingly. Images can be limited to high-margin items or guest favorites.
- Guests’ eyes tend to stray to the upper right corner when they first look at a menu, making this a good spot to place specials, high-margin items, or signature dishes.
- The most common flaws in menu design are a lack of contrast between the background color and typography, and beat-up menus that obviously need to be retired.
- When arranging items under a particular section, the first and last items are typically the most important. These are often a restaurant’s staple offering or a signature dish.
The process of redesigning or creating a first-time menu isn’t always simple, but it’s one that most restaurants find thoroughly pays off.
Guest response to the new menu at the Brigantine has been overwhelmingly positive, Morton Jr. says, estimating an 80/20 affirmative reaction to the upgrades.
“Most say, ‘This is awesome, I love the fresh ingredients and how you’re incorporating things from around town,’” he says.
Others have asked why the restaurant changed its styling. “A few say, ‘Brigantine is 45 years old, why are you doing this to my Brigantine?’ But we’ve got to ensure another 45 years for a future generation.”
As Wolf puts it, “If a restaurant menu is static, it’s dead.”
Not only are updates to the menu necessary every so often, to refresh the restaurant and showcase new offerings, it’s also expected by guests, who have embraced the era of chef-driven restaurants where menus rotate daily or weekly. The Brigantine, in fact, keeps a printer in-house at all of its locations to print new menus a few times per week. This allows the restaurant to keep up with seasonality and fresh catches of the day.
Coco’s Bakery Restaurants, meanwhile, found great success with the new menu rollout over the summer, with customers offering positive feedback.
“We’re a brand trying to be competitive in this market,” Marron Sr. says. “The fast-casual industry that’s out there, it’s able to produce these high-quality items at a low cost, and it’s really taken market share away from full-service restaurants like ourselves, so one of the purposes of this [new] menu was to try to stay competitive with them and introduce menu items that are accepted by customers.
“It’s a lot easier to produce a new menu than it is to redesign a restaurant,” he adds.
FDA Hands Down Menu-Labeling Regulation
Beginning Dec. 1, 2015, the Food and Drug Administration will require restaurants with 20 or more locations to list calorie counts on menus and, if applicable, on menuboards. Any restaurant with fewer than 20 units can volunteer to be covered by the national standard.
Specifically, the rules require food establishments to clearly and conspicuously display calorie information for standard items on menus, and the calorie information must be placed next to the name or price of the item. The law exempts items that are available fewer than 60 days, such as seasonal offerings and daily specials, as well as condiments available for general use. It also exempts alcoholic drinks such as cocktails that are not listed on a menu. However, in a surprising move, the law requires alcohol present on a menu, such as a wine or beer list, to include calorie counts.