Consider this – the menu is the most important component of a successful restaurant and once designed it can, and should, impact every other aspect of the business.  These aspects include: décor, skill level of staff, style of service, pricing, profit, type of vendors selected, kitchen layout, equipment selection, marketing and advertising, pay scales, dining room seating, type of china, glassware and flatware, even the location and color scheme for the exterior of the restaurant.  YES – the menu is that important!

The menu comes first and should reflect the philosophy of the owners and chef and how the operators expect to be perceived by the public.  Far too many times the menu takes a back seat to all other planning that will lead to serious miscalculations along the way.  General Motors would never build and equip an auto plant, hire the entire staff, and create a marketing strategy until the car they intend to build is designed, prototyped, and presented to various focus groups first.  Why should it be any different for restaurants and their menus?

That being said – here are a few examples of “menu thinking” that can be considered:


This menu is developed using analytical data that is drawn from surveys and historical reference to other restaurants within a community or region.  There is certainly nothing wrong with this approach except that the result is typically an operation that lacks inspiration, lacks soul, and attracts employees who are less interested in passion and far more content to align with the operation that provides a dependable paycheck.  There are thousands of restaurants just like this – they serve a real need for dependability.


Whether it’s the history of the town where the restaurant is located, the family that owns the operation, or the heritage of a certain ethnicity – sometimes these influences set the stage for a menu and what it represents.  Destiny and tradition create expectations that are hard to argue with.  A restaurant on the Maine coast without lobster would be difficult to justify, just as a café in the French Quarter of New Orleans without some reference to Cajun, Creole, traditional Southern or Acadian French cooking would seem out of place.


Of course – many chefs view the menu as a chance to make a statement – a statement that focuses on those styles of cooking that influenced the chef, his or her desire to “push the envelope”, and a chance to stand out among the crowd of competitors.  This menu energy is attractive to chefs while at the same time it is risky.  A chef’s signature without any research can set a negative perception of the restaurant that is hard to break.  At the same time – a restaurant that boxes a chef into a corner with little or no room for expression will find it difficult to hang on to culinary talent. 


When a chef engages the culinary team in the process of menu building, and when this is done with proper guidance and adherence to a common set of benchmarks, then real kitchen synergy will result.  This is one of the best ways to attract excellent cooks and create an environment where they want to stay and contribute to the team effort.


We have seen some examples of uniquely talented and daring chefs who want to shock as much as inspire.   Keeping in mind that there is a relatively small, but passionate number of consumers who are referred to as “innovators” (1-2% of the dining public) – there will always be room for a few disruptor restaurants.  The biggest challenge is keeping those innovators interested and expanding the market to enough predictable guests to keep the restaurant in business.


When a chef takes part in active demographic research – a menu might very well reflect something about the community where the restaurant sits.  Building a neighborhood restaurant where support for the operation is considered a responsibility of residents becomes a reality when that operation truly connects.  It might be based on a menu that reflects the heritage of the community, the ethnicity of residents, their socio-economic background, or something about the community that makes it unique.  When a chef identifies this and as a result creates loyalty – then a restaurant can expect to live on for generations.


Owners have a tough time staying out of the menu planning process.  It is their business after all – right?  The chef, regardless of how creative he or she might be, and the owner, regardless of how savvy he or she might be as a consumer – needs to take a back seat to all of the factors that will lead to a connection with consumers and return customers.  Beware of the owner that hopes to build a personal menu rather than one that might work.


It takes just a minute or two for a seasoned restaurant professional to identify a menu without direction.  There should always be “connections” on the menu:  the appetizers set the stage for the entrees, and the entrees lead to desserts that complete the package.  When a menu lacks continuity, then the experience suffers and the customer is left – confused.


There was a time when the American diner was prevalent at every major crossing of highways.  Not ever knowing whom their next customer might be – these operations attacked the customer will pages of menu choices, representing multiple ethnic influences, utilizing every ingredient possible, and doing so without any parameters such as what makes sense for a given meal period or how the kitchen and service staff might function.  When the restaurant offers pasta primavera and tacos throughout the day then the consumer starts to wonder what the results will be.

Don’t underestimate the importance of smart menu planning that takes into consideration the habits and desires of typical customers, demographics, the facility layout and equipment on hand, the skill level of the cooks, the style of service that front of the house employees are trained to execute, the price point and profitability potential of the items selected, the availability of vendors, and the passion and ability of the chef who stands at the helm.


Harvest America Ventures, LLC  BLOG

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About Me

PAUL SORGULE is a seasoned chef, culinary educator, established author, and industry consultant. These are his stories of cooks, chefs, and the environment of the professional kitchen.


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