June 1, 2020

Food is an experience that begins long before anyone tastes anything. What customers see, hear and smell when they enter your front door, take their seat at a table, and glance at your menu can mean the difference between long-term restaurant success and mediocrity.

Having a great menu is one of your most important marketing tools. It highlights food options in a way that sells customers on the value of the overall experience—hopefully in a way that gets people raving about your restaurant.

Check out these key menu design tips to get your diners diving in and enjoying what you’ve created in the kitchen.

Choose the Right Menu Font to Set the Tone

Choosing a great menu font is important for setting the right tone for your customers’ dining experience. What kind of ambiance do you want to create when they sit down to eat?

A clean, sans serif typeface tells your diner they’re about to enjoy simple, modern, cutting-edge cuisine. An Old English font, with its sweeping calligraphy, indicates a traditional meal—a pub-style menu, for example.

Modern minimalistic restaurant menu template

Modern minimalist restaurant menu example

It’s common to use more than one font on a menu, but don’t go overboard. Restrict your fonts to three: this includes both style and size. Think of it like any seasonings you might use in a recipe: more isn’t always better…it can be overpowering and spoil the dish.

A Color Scheme That Fits the Mood

After you’ve chosen your fonts, the next consideration is color. The same psychology that applies to the hues you select for your signage, the walls, even your staff uniforms applies to the colors you choose for the menu. Blue is considered a very calming tone. Green implies “organic” or “fresh” ingredients. Yellow automatically draws attention and red inspires a person to take action.

Green vegan restaurant menu with vegetables doodle on wooden background

Vegan restaurant menu example

Again, don’t try to weave every color of the rainbow into your menu, but take time to consider the unspoken impression you want to give to your diners. Your menu is one of your best branding tools, and in great brands, focus and simplicity rules the day. So keep your fonts, colors, and other stylistic elements aligned with your brand strategy.

This includes the use of graphics…

A Picture Worth a Thousand Words?

Of all the menu design tips, this one requires very careful consideration—from both a messaging and financial point of view.

Some ethnic restaurants include photos of their food. Most diners won’t get any cues from the actual name or description of the dish, so a photo helps them decode what they’re about to order. But it’s rare that a fine-dining restaurant, or a more traditional breakfast, lunch or dinner spot will have photos of their menu items. Here’s why…

In fine-dining or farm-to-table eateries, the menu will change constantly based on the inspiration of the chef and the availability of ingredients. Don’t sign yourself up for constantly reprinting your menu with new photos – it gets expensive.

In a traditional restaurant, your guests don’t need to see a photo of a hamburger—they know what they’re in for—your description, not the photo on the menu will tell the story.

casual restaurant food menu design template

Casual restaurant menu example

If you’re going to include food shots or illustrations, be prepared to pay for a seasoned professional. Good graphics can be pricey, but bad graphics can hurt you more than help you. Take care not to undermine a great dish with bad visual art on your menu.

The Visual “Sweet Spot”…Is There One?

There are a couple schools of thought when it comes to spacing visual elements in your menu. We’ll share them both and let you decide what makes sense for your restaurant.

The “rule of primacy and recency” means that people remember – and prioritize – the first and the last items on any list. Savvy restaurateurs put two of their highest margin menu items at the top of each menu section, and one high margin item at the bottom. They also limit each section to no more than seven choices. Your diners want options, but too many will overwhelm them.

Branding experts also tell restaurateurs that menus have visual “sweet spots” which draw in the reader. That’s the spot where chefs should place the most important, i.e. most profitable, menu items. Research indicated that diners beelined for the spot just inches from the top right of menus and or any reading material.

Yet a study conducted several years ago at San Francisco University suggested a different reading pattern for menus. It turned out that their test subjects read a menu like a book: left to right, top to bottom. The sweet spot, it turns out, is where you choose to make it.

Using elements like negative space or white space on a menu gives readers a place to relax and draws their attention to items you want them to order.

Whatever your approach, don’t start with a blank canvas. Canva is a great tool to guide your menu design project, with free templates to give you a headstart.

Is There Really a “World’s Best Burger?”

If you’re creating a menu for a specific niche – vegan, organic, local – standing out in the crowd might not be as important. But if you’re trying to compete with other mainstream restaurants, whether fine dining, family dining, or fast food dining, finding ways to entice your customers to order your higher-margin dishes takes some story magic.

Industry research suggests that diners are more likely to order a dish that has a “story” behind it. So while saying you have “the world’s best burger” might not inspire someone to order yours, a “Housemade Beef Patty on a Fresh-baked Sourdough Bun with Yukon Gold Potato Fries and Garlic Aioli” just might.

Don’t fall into the “Grandma’s Apple Pie” trap. Create your own story around your dishes. If you’ve studied with other food enthusiasts and worked in kitchens, you’ve heard dozens of food stories. Tell your diners some of them!

Pick your highest margin dishes and weave a tale that leads your diner to that plate. Customers will spend more on dishes that come with a unique story.

Choosing the Right Paper Texture

While there’s no right or wrong approach for the kind of paper to use, if you’ve done your research this will be simple.

Think about the tactile experience your guests will have with your menu. Do you want to prepare your guests for a higher-end dining experience? Then use a higher-end paper stock – something with weight and texture.

Do you want to appeal to diners looking for good value for their money? A laminated or light-weight paper menu will assure them the prices and fare will meet their budget expectations.

Keep in mind that a diner who holds a heavy, textured menu won’t necessarily look at the prices. They’ll be influenced by the tactile experience and might be scared off if it feels overpriced.

Fine-dining restaurant menu design

Fine-dining restaurant menu example

On the flipside, flimsy paper might put a seed of doubt into a diner’s mind when they’re looking at the menu. That can impact their perception of the meal, no matter how expertly it was prepared and served.

There’s another way to acknowledge what your guests are expecting based on what you have to offer, and that’s how you express your pricing.

Keep the Change?

The same reasoning that you applied to your paper stock can be used here. What sort of image are you trying to convey?

If you want your guests to expect great value for the dollar, keep the cents. Rounding a price down from a whole number has been an effective marketing tactic for a very long time.. For example, listing your burger for $13.95 instead of $14.00 subtly gives diners the impression that they’re getting a deal. This works even though, as consumers, we know the trick.

However, fine-dining establishments tend to leave off the cents completely. The price will be listed as $22, for example, and usually tucked discreetly at the end of the description of the dish. You don’t want diners to dwell on the price, just the culinary experience they’re about to enjoy.

Take it a step further and don’t even include the dollar sign. It can take your patron’s mind off cost and guide them to your higher-margin or signature items. And for those most important occasions – anniversaries and certain birthdays – when patrons have that “price is no object!” mentality, restaurants can list the item with “market price.”

Learning Opportunities

Of all the careers you can pursue after graduating from culinary school, opening a restaurant is one that comes with some of the greatest risks, but also great rewards.

An online diploma or degree in Culinary Arts or a diploma in Pastry Arts with industry externship from Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts teaches how to practically apply culinary knowledge in restaurant operations.

Take the time to do your research and master all the details, like how to create a great restaurant menu.

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