7 menu-writing secrets that sell

As an editor for a restaurant magazine, I read a lot of menus for my job—it’s a way to get story leads, become acquainted with a chef’s style and track food and drink trends. But as a restaurant customer, I sometimes find that reading a menu is an overwhelming task. More often than not, the server pressures the table to order while we’re still sipping drinks and catching up. The menus are on the table but we haven’t looked at them. Once I take a look, there’s a lot to read and absorb.

So what makes me gravitate toward a particular item? Sometimes the reason is a whim—I’m just in the mood for pork belly that night. And sometimes I notice a signature dish that I’ve heard a lot about and I just have to try it. But according to Chicago data research firm Food Genius, best practices in menu descriptions do exist—and restaurants that follow them can boost sales and traffic. Food Genius offers seven examples of on-trend and data-enhanced menu descriptions.

1. Reference a region with which customers have positive associations

Calamari appears on many appetizer lists, from sports bars to upscale Italian restaurants. A better way of saying “fried calamari with marinara dipping sauce,” is “hand-breaded and pan-fried calamari, accompanied by Napoli-style marinara sauce.” The reference to Naples evokes authenticity and a bit of romanticism.

2. Emphasize the origin of ingredients to let customers know that you source your ingredients thoughtfully

Grilled Chicken Salad is another one of those ubiquitous menu items that usually has a ho-hum description. The enhanced example given by Food Genius is: “Charcoal Grilled Chicken Salad: Mixed seasonal greens, charcoal grilled chicken breast, bacon, peas, Mooney Farm tomatoes, carrots, cucumber and sourdough croutons and your choice of house dressings.” Naming a farmer or rancher gives a personal connection to the food.

3. Include allergen information to ensure that risk-averse customers can consider their choices

If an item is gluten-free, for example, include a “GF” next to the menu item, then list all the ingredients so the guest knows he or she is “safe.”

4. Include references to housemade ingredients to differentiate your menu from the competition’s

Sandwiches are a popular menu category and many operations offer similar variations. When an Italian Roasted Chicken Sandwich goes by this description—sliced roasted chicken breast, spicy pepperoni, Kurtinger spinach, oven-roasted red peppers and mozzarella drizzled with basil pesto on our freshly baked ciabatta bread—the details set this chicken sandwich apart and make it craveable.

5. Customers value the ability to customize their meals

Within broad categories such as salad, pasta, steak and pizza, offer one “diner’s choice.” For a Diner’s Choice Pizza, for example, Food Genius offers up this description: Your choice of spicy pepperoni, Italian sausage, onion, bell peppers, mushroom, Kalamata olives, shredded mozzarella and San Marzano tomato sauce.

6. Emphasize the composition of a dish

It creates value by drawing attention to the work involved in creating the menu item. Instead of listing “Grilled Salmon with Mashed Potatoes and Broccoli” on the menu, call the dish “Charcoal Grilled Pacific Salmon” and elaborate with “Grilled wild Pacific salmon fillet accompanied by hand-whipped Idaho potatoes and oven-roasted broccoli florets.”

7. Be transparent

One way: Specify a cut of meat in the menu description to build trust with customers. Here’s a description of a pork chop entrée: Charcoal grilled center-cut pork chops accompanied by hand-whipped Idaho potatoes, pan-sauteed Kurtinger spinach and housemade Cortland applesauce.

Granted, these descriptions do take a bit longer to read. But the information gives customers more power over their decisions—and that’s a good thing these days, when everyone wants to have control over their food choices. Although Food Genius doesn’t say this, I think operators can probably upcharge for menu items that provide more detailed and enticing descriptions. I, for one, would be tempted.

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