When to use menu photos

fish steak vegetables


Dear Advice Guy,

We are currently redesigning our menu. What are your feelings on using lots of photos of food on our menu?

– Paul Van Beurden, Owner, Dutchmen’s Seafood House, Morro Bay, California


Proceed with caution. Photos can be great menu merchandising tools, especially for casual concepts. If the big groups are doing it, it may seem logical for an independent operator to follow.

However, there are some common pitfalls with menu photos you need to avoid:

  • Welcome to the 70s. Photographers will tell you that shooting food well is a challenge. Food photos not professionally done look outdated and unappetizing.
  • Truth in advertising. You will need a good photographer and stylist to get your menu items looking their best. But how will that compare to the food looks as it leaves the kitchen in reality? Does a beautiful photo of a menu item create expectations on the part of the guest that you will struggle to meet?
  • SOPs. Related to the point above, are your menu items sufficiently standardized and your cooks sufficiently trained that the items you serve are consistently in the ballpark of the image?

It’s important that you know why you would add images and have a strategy around it. People are coming to your restaurant to eat seafood and have a good time; having a picture on the menu won’t attract more guests to do that. What it might do, done well, is draw attention and sales to high margin items or upsells like appetizers, dessert, or specialty cocktails.

The other case for using menu photos is if you have some unusual menu items. While a good menu description may help to explain the item, a picture may be more efficient.

Finally, it’s important that any photos on your menu are your own. While stock photos are available and can save money on a professional shoot, unless you are featuring generic food that can conform to a standard image, it’s best if any photos that appear on the menu are of your own food that you can stand by.

Overall, I’m not enthusiastic about photos on menus but done well it can be an effective merchandising tool. So do it well.

More on menu photos here.