Simplifying your menu


What is the easiest way to take a catering menu and tone it down to really make a solid menu that will sell? I feel our menu is just too big and broad. I want to narrow it down with what is going to sell and eliminate items just taking up space.

– Blake Johnson, Food and Beverage Director, La Fontaine Bleue Fine Catering & Bistro, Glen Burnie, Maryland


What you’re asking about is called Menu Engineering (ME), a concept developed by hospitality educators Michael Kasavana and Donald Smith at Michigan State University in the early 1980s. Menu Engineering is a great exercise to do periodically to overhaul or fine tune your menu. Without going into too much detail (there are many menu engineering guides available online), the idea is to maximize sales of items that are both in demand and have a high profit margin (these are called stars in ME terminology).

With the same logic, you want to remove items that are not in demand and are low margin because they have a high food cost, are labor intensive, or are perceived as low value/low priced, meaning clients won’t pay a premium (dogs in ME terms). The other ME categories are puzzles (high margin but low demand) and plowhorses (low margin but high demand). The object there is to increase demand of puzzle and raise the margin on the plowhorse to make these items stars.

Catering clients are overwhelmed by too many choices and will inevitably ask for off-menu items anyway. So, first, eliminate the dogs completely. Next, make sure all of your stars remain on your menu. Try to limit each category (passed hors’ d’oeuvres, soups, salads, chicken, fish, beef, etc.) to three to seven choices, and stick to equal groups of odd numbers (for example five poultry options, five fish options, and so on). If you have a plowhorse, try to nudge the price up to make it a star and see if your clients accept the increase. For a question mark, try offering tastes at sales meetings, feature it as a signature item on the menu, or tweak the menu description to see if you can get more hosts to include it on their event menus.

One key of menu engineering is that it is not a one-time activity. Like determining your costing and pricing, the menu should be reviewed and revised periodically as tastes, prices, and perceptions change constantly in our industry.