The user-friendly menu

The menu at Wave, in the W Chicago Hotel, has been a work in progress. Arriving early to the “sharing plates” party, Wave’s basic concept hasn’t changed, but the way it’s presented to customers via the menu has undergone a series of subtle shifts. On opening day, the document was organized by cooking technique— as in Chilled, Raw, Flat (breads), Tossed (salads), Crispy (fried items), Grilled, Roasted, Skewered, and Sweet (desserts), not to mention Large Plates (larger-size portions) and Sip (specialty cocktails). Whether individual dishes were sized like appetizers or entrees was inferred by price; the real intent was to get patrons to order a number of different plates for sharing and sampling.

Innovative, certainly, but Wave’s envelope-stretching menu format also turned out to be a headache for both patrons and staff. “Think about it,” says Amanda Wurzbach, director of marketing for Cornerstone Management and Con­sulting, which operates the restaurant. “You’ve had a long day at work and you’re finally sitting down to relax with your friends or your husband, and you’ve got this pesky menu to find your way through.” Service staff, meanwhile, had its hands full, what with explaining which items were appetizers and which were entrees, describing specials, and generally attending to people’s needs. “There’s a limit to how long the guest can pay attention.”

Today the menu is a lot more user-friendly, divided as it is into small-plate and large-plate categories, with ingredient- or prep-specific subcategories like seafood, kebabs, flatbreads, and sides called out separately; house specialties are designated with an arrow. Explains Wurzbach: “Customers are still ordering things to share, as we intended, but now the menu’s a lot easier to navigate. When you figure that the average diner spends two, maybe three minutes tops looking at a menu, you want to make it as approachable as possible. And the waitstaff really appreciates it, too.”

If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: The menu is the single most important marketing tool a restaurateur has. But what does that mean, exactly, especially in these days of thriving competition and the headlong rush to set yourself apart from the pack? And what does it mean at a time when so many operators are experimenting with the menu format itself, moving beyond the usual app-entrée-dessert progression to experiment with categories like tapas, small plates, and sharing-size portions? Is the menu a puzzle you can take apart and put back together differently?

“You want something that stands out and is memorable, something that sets you apart from everyone else on the street,” says Jane Ogurek, whose Nekoosha, WI-based company, The Menu Maker, specializes in restaurant menu design and services. “That means not only attractive and visually interesting, but also easy to hold and logical to read.” It also means doing the market research—finding out what other operators in the neighborhood are do­ing, how they’re doing it, and what they charge. “None of this takes place in a vacuum.”

There’s no doubt that menu design and development have become an increasingly sophisticated business, full of maxims and dictums about sales-mix management, pricing, cross-utilization, suggestive selling—it’s not just about layout and paper stock anymore. Actually, it’s about brand identification, and the menu is only one of the most visible documents of a clearly defined mission.

“I call it the telephone test,” says Mark Thomas of Atlanta-based M.D.T., Ltd., which provides a variety of consulting services to foodservice manufacturers and operators, including concept development, strategic assess­ment, marketing, and menu engineering. “If someone calls up to find out what kind of restaurant you are and you can’t give an accurate, one-sentence description that captures who you are, you’re in trouble. You must have a brand personality.”

And from that brand personality flows every decision the savvy operator will ever make, from décor and the type of chairs to the waitstaff uniforms and what kind of music is on the sound system—not to mention how the menu (and wine list) look, feel, and taste.

If you are a Mediterranean small plates concept in a casual but sophisticated wine-bar atmosphere you’re not going to serve a $9.95 plate of meat loaf, and your individual-pizzas-and toasted-sandwiches-from-the-woodburning-oven theme isn’t going to have a menu that’s printed in script. 

“The overarching goals that govern a menu have to be about bringing brand, consumer need, and operational ability together,” says Steven Goldstein, president of FOODthinque in New York City, and the Director of Research & Development for The Culinary Insti­tute of America, managing the creation of The Center for Menu Research & De­velopment at the CIA’s Greystone campus in St. Helena, CA. “In other industries, all products are tested against these filters. That has to be true of restaurants as well.”

Successful chefs and other entrepreneurial types may not deploy the heavy- duty management-speak, but they’re still doing the brand-management thing. “It’s about continuity,” says Donnie Madia, one of the four partners in avec, a “wine cuisine” restaurant in Chicago. “It all has to fit together.” By that, Madia means everything from the food and the furniture to the business cards and letterhead. “It’s even reflected in our personalities and how we treat people.”

Having practiced first with the upscale, contemporary American restaurant Blackbird next door, Madia and his partners—including chef Paul Kahan—have become particularly adept at self-definition. “Avec means ‘with’—with food, with wine, with friends. And that suggests a whole image for the restaurant.”

Like interlocking pieces of a puzzle, everything fits together to say “clean, rustic, and honest,” from the clean-lined, wood-and-glass interior to the blocky sans-serif logo, and the neat, narrow, folded menu that highlights small plates on one panel, large plates on the second, and cheese selections on the third. The attention to simple, stylistic detail even extends to uniforms (logo imprinted T-shirts), business cards, and stationery—not to mention the food itself. “It’s very important to have this kind of continuity.”

Likewise, the menu (designed by J&L Design) touts sophisticated, pan-Mediterranean style preparations that are nonetheless carefully created to be non-intimidating for Midwestern diners, such as Roasted Corn Crostini with Arugula and Red Onion ($8), Homemade Lamb Sausage with Eggplant Caponata, Bitter Greens and Feta ($12), and Wood Oven Roasted Pork Shoulder with Green Chili Sofrito ($19).

Once you understand the positioning and personality of the concept, then you can create foods that complement that,” explains Ed Landefeld, president of The Hospitality Development Group in Charlotte, NC, which handles all phases of menu engineering and development, from the cuisine definition, cost engineering, testing, and recipe creation to the physical design of the menu.

It’s a methodical, step-by-step discipline that may run counter to how “creative types” approach the menu, says Landefeld, but it helps ensure that everything on the menu, from appetizers to desserts, passes the “does it fit my concept?” test. From there, Landefeld recommends a thorough analysis of each proposed menu item that includes close looks at not only the recipe and how it tastes, but also costing and yield tests, service and prep- time evaluations, and other considerations. Through this process, items that don’t make the grade somehow—the cost structure is off, for instance, or the prep ties up a piece of equipment too long—will fall out of the running. “That gives you a fairly comprehensive first cut of the recipes and the financials,” explains Landefeld.

With an existing menu, the financial analysis part is a little more obvious—and that’s where the familiar old menu matrix comes in, with its four quadrants (Stars, Plowhorses, Dogs, and Mysteries) delineating the profitability and average number of units sold for every single item on the menu, from the low-cost/high-volume Stars to the high-cost/low-volume Dogs. It’s an analysis that cannot be done too often, but certainly should be undertaken around such significant developments as a seasonal menu change, price increase, or the entry into the market of a new competitor.

After all this analysis, the menu layout itself starts to look like the easiest part. It’s no secret that you can influence customers’ buying decis­ions with subtle layout and design cues. “If you want something to sell, set it apart visually,” says Ogurek, “with a different style or color of type, a box or subtle shading, an illustra­tion, or a burst to indicate that something’s new or a house specialty.”

That’s what the owners at the new Press restaurant in St. Helena, CA, did.

“We were introducing our customers to some of the first all-natural, dry-aged certified Black Angus prime beef in the Napa Valley, at premium prices,” says executive chef Keith Luce, “so we chose to highlight these items in a special box.” From $32 for an 8-oz. hand-cut tenderloin to $85 for a 32-oz. porterhouse for two, the beef items account for up to 65% of total sales.

You can also take advantage of extensive “eye tracking” research that spells out how people use their eyes—and read menus. “We know exactly where to place the items you want to sell,” says Mark Thomas. In a standard two-page-facing menu, for instance, the eye is first drawn to the righthand page, about 25% down from the top, then circles around the pages in irregular zigzags before settling in for the ordering debate. In a single-page format, the eye goes first to the middle third of the page, all other things being equal. “If you place your high-value or profit items in those areas, you drive people to them.”

These techniques can also benefit utilization patterns. “A lot of the work I seem to be concentrating on right now is highlighting and low-lighting the same ingredient in multiple menu applications so the operator can gain some ingredient efficiency, without having the customer experience the obvious repeats of the ingredient or item wherever they rest their gaze,” says Robin Schempp, president of Right Stuff Enterprises and a co-owner of the Mist Grill in Waterbury, VT. “You might see an heirloom tomato from a particular farm spotlighted as the lead ingredient in a summer tomato salad, but described more generically as a yellow tomato in another application.”

These techniques also work regardless of a menu’s specific format. “Small plates, tapas, standard appetizer/salad/entrée formats—they all follow these guidelines,” says Thomas. “Once you’ve mastered them, you can approach any kind of menu.”           

Mix & Match Menuing

Even by post-millennial standards, Olea has an unusually fluid menu—the more so because it’s located in Portland, OR, a city known more for its Pacific Northwest ingredient chauvinism than for its outside-the-box innovation. Owner Richard Glass and executive chef Scott Shampine clearly prefer it that way.

Housed in a repurposed loft in Portland’s up-and-coming Pearl District, the three-month-old Olea (the Latin name for olive plant) focuses on the flavors and dishes of Italy, Spain, and France—the Axis of Olives, as it were. Instead of any sort of traditional categories, however, the menu delineates foods as Snacks/ Primi; Vegetables; Flat Breads & Crespelle; Charcuterie, Salumi & Cheese; Pasta & Polenta; Shellfish & Fin Fish; Meat & Poultry; and Desserts. Menu items are available in multiple size ranges for lighter dining or sharing in both the bar and dining room.

“The menu is designed to encourage people to dine communally, to sample and share a number of different things,” says Glass. “There’s a certain casualness to the whole experience of eating food this way that we really like.”

Customers must like it, too. Drawn in by the opportunity to order small samples of things they might not otherwise try—like a $4 plate of Crispy Frico & Ceci with Parmesan Powder, or Steamed Cockles with Harissa, Basil, Garlic and Olives for $8—fans are ordering a little of this and a little of that, trying new things and upselling their own checks, just as Glass envisioned.

“The first visit, they’re a little dubious, but the waitstaff is trained to help them,” he says. And by the second or third visit they’re doing things like ordering an Affettati Misti (mixed charcuterie plate, $16) for the table, to munch on while they consider the rest of their order. And, just as planned, folks at the bar will spring for a couple of cheeses or a dish of smoked Marcona almonds to help the wine go down easier.

The biggest surprise, says Glass, is how adventurous people are being. “We figured we’d put Spit Roasted Octopus Salad on the menu as a lark,” he says. “But at $6 and $10 for the two sizes, “we’ve had a lot of takers.”

Simplicity Sells

“At press, what you see is what you get,” says Keith Luce, executive chef of the four-month-old wine country restaurant in St. Helena, CA. Here, that means the great wines of the Napa Valley, complemented by an American-brasserie menu that celebrates the best ingredients of the region, with more than a few nods to the classic New York or Chicago-style steakhouse.

Cooking methods are pared-down and back-to-basics, emphasizing roasts from the almond and cherry wood-fired rotisseries and grills from a hardwood charcoal fire. Menu copy is equally straightforward, with a smattering of ingredient provenances: “Hand-Chopped Steak Tartare ($14)”; “Little Gem Lettuce & Radicchio with Shaft’s Bleu Cheese ($13)”; “Whole Farm-Raised Chicken, carved tableside for two ($40)”; “Dry-Aged New York Strip, 16 ounces ($48).”

To Luce’s way of thinking, it’s the best way to put the focus squarely where it belongs: on the abundance of the region. “The partners and I feel that chefs’ egos are getting out of hand, and we want to help the pendulum swing back to sourcing the best possible product, and then presenting it with the minimum amount of fussing.”Because Press is one of the first restaurants in the Napa Valley to emphasize top-of-the-line beef, the five steaks are boxed out in their own section on the menu. “This is the stuff with the premium prices, and we didn’t want our customers to have sticker shock across the board [by integrating the steaks with the rest of the items],” explains Luce. “This way, we’re playing up the fact that we’re really proud of the quality.”

The strategy seems to be working, too, since steaks account for 65% or more of sales on a menu that also includes items like line-caught Alaska halibut, wild salmon in season, and a Heritage Berkshire pork chop with stone fruit relish.

Look sharp and you’ll see other steakhouse-style riffs, including a clutch of Side Dishes for Sharing that turn the classic á la carte sides on their ear, among them Roasted Russet Potato & Garlic Cake ($12), “Cotton” Onion Rings ($9), Hand-Cut Kennebec “Frites” ($10), and Blue Lake and Yellow Wax Beans with Wine Cured Onions ($9).

Two Heads are Better Than One

David and Bob Kinkead have an angle—not a gimmick, an angle. The two brothers, both with extensive behind-the-stove experience in their respective towns of Boston and Washington, DC, are working together for the first time, at Sibling Rivalry on David’s home turf. And it’s safe to say Beantown has never seen a menu like it—nor any other town, for that matter.

After much debate, the two chefs decided to create a two-sided menu focusing on their different interpretations of the same mutually agreeable ingredients and flavors. Arugula, for instance, might be interpreted by David in a Trio of Roasted Baby Beet, Arugula, and Haricot Vert Salad with Goat Cheese Fondue ($11); and by Bob, in an appetizer of Soft Shell Crab with Cauliflower Risole, Pancetta, Garlic, Lemon, Arugula, and Capers ($13). Lobster, meanwhile, takes the form of Herb Crusted Atlantic Cod with Lobster Ravioli, Asparagus, and Lobster Sorrel Sauce ($26) in David’s hands, and a Salad of Lobster, Artichokes, Oven Dried Tomatoes, Avocado, and Herbs ($16) in Bob’s.

“At first, people did a lot of complaining about this menu, especially the local food press,” says Bob, the owner of Kinkead’s in DC and Colvin Run Tavern in Northern Virginia. “But part of the appeal, especially for regulars, is that they really feel like they’re in on something special once they get it. They come back again, and next time they bring all their friends.”

“We didn’t really expect that,” adds David, most recently executive chef for the Olives Group. ”It’s really helped build our reputation.”

Not to mention the fact that, dueling menus aside, Boston hasn’t really seen the likes of either Bob or David’s food, which tends to be a bit more influenced by classical French cuisine than what you’d typically see. “We’re doing a level of cooking you can’t really find anywhere else in Boston,” notes Bob.

How is it to collaborate with another chef, much less a sibling? “It takes a bit of negotiation,” admits David. “But we try to put our egos aside. It’s not, ‘Whose dish is this? and Whose dish is that?’ We’re running a successful business together.”


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