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How to Make a Restaurant Menu: A Step-by-Step Guide

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Renee Guilbault
September 18, 2023
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One of the questions I hear most from restaurant owners and managers is this: “How do I create a menu for a restaurant?” Second to that might be: “What are the most profitable items on a menu?” Everyone, it seems, wants a magical answer that tells them how to make a restaurant menu that hits all the right notes and does all the right things (and makes all kinds of money). 

Well, this might come as a surprise, but menu success is not about the way your menu looks or reads, or even about the dishes you know taste great. It’s about the system behind the menu.  

I mean, sure, there is a ton of research about how the “right menu design” can influence your customers’ choices. Strategies like grouping “like items” together (say, pizzas or sandwiches) or how limiting each category to just a few items (never more than seven is the popular opinion) have a track record in boosting sales. But frankly, while they are definitely helpful and shouldn’t be ignored, none of these “rules” actually address the true importance of your menu as the sole financial tool that will determine your food business’s success—or its failure. 

Think about it: there is only one way a food operation can stay in business, and that’s through selling—profitably selling—food and drink. If the items you put on your menu don’t drive sales or the cost of producing and selling them is more than they earn, guess what’s going to happen? That’s right—big trouble in food paradise.

The difference between stellar financial performance and closing up shop comes down to how you develop your menu. You can look at your menu as an off-the-cuff list of dishes you feel like selling in a given day, or you can look at it as the end product of strategic, consistent system that has been designed for success. (Spoiler alert: you want to pick the second one—using the system I’m about to lay out for you.)

So yes, all this means that the most powerful tool you have to drive successful performance and ensure longevity is your menu.  

How to Create a Restaurant Menu

What follows here is a step-by-step overview of what you need to consider to create a restaurant menu. As I mentioned before, this is really not about graphic design, and it’s not about what might be trendy in restaurants today. What it is about is helping you design the perfect menu system

If you want to generate real profit, nurture happy and loyal customers, and create long-term financial viability, looking at your menu as a system is a serious game-changer. Not only will it help you stay profitable, it will also save you and your team valuable time and energy over the long run. When you have a well-developed system in place, it’s easy to stay organized and on track without the frazzle of any lurking last-minute surprises or even questions like “what should I put on my menu?”. 

So, are you ready to have your menu mind blown? I thought so. Let’s dig in.

Step 1: Know Your Brand

Brand fit comes first in this guide because brand fit needs to come first in your business—you absolutely cannot design a successful menu if you don’t fully know your own brand. Understanding your brand’s identity and purpose is fundamental to successful menu design—from the food product itself to how you price it to how you sell it to your customers. 

Everything flows from a deep understanding of your brand—absolutely everything. So, asking yourself some critical questions and getting your whole team on board with the same answers is the first place to start. Ask yourself:

  • Who are we?
  • What do our customers expect from us?
  • What is our brand saying to them? (“Come as you are?” “Dress to impress?”)
  • What is our core customer avatar? (Say, for example, “Female, age 18-38, into food trends/hip businesses with ‘cool’ social media presence, single with a lot of disposable income…”)
  • What is our brand personality? What does our voice sound like? (Is our menu fun? Cheeky? Serious? How do we communicate? What words do we choose to represent ourselves?)
  • What is our brand visual identity? Boho? Hipster? Corporate? Relaxing? Stimulating? 
  • What is our purpose? Our mission, vision, and values?
  • What are our food principles? Ingredient principles? Nutritional principles? Culinary principles?

In the simplest of terms, these questions all come down to two things: your food principles, and your relationship with your customer. You need to know who you are, what you are serving, and why. And your customer needs to know those exact same things so they always know what they can rely on when purchasing from you. (The definition of trust is delivering on expectations—and you will need to create that relationship with your customers if you want to stay in business for the long term.)

Once you have alignment on your brand identity and your food principles, they can act as your beacon in the menu development process whenever you are feeling lost or facing a difficult choice. 

Step 2: Create Your Annual Development Calendar

Nothing is done on a whim at the world’s most successful food companies. 

There is no universe in which a major food brand is resting on the shoulders of a lone chef who designs each menu by throwing together off-the-cuff dishes in a kitchen somewhere. Instead, it takes decision after decision in department after department, team member by team member—whether their expertise is in recipe development, purchasing, training, packaging, marketing, sales, or something else. And, no matter what viewpoint those decisions are coming from, each one must be driven by your business goals.

But here’s the good news: if you’re among the 70% of U.S. restaurants that are independently owned and operated and you don’t have the gift of multiple teams of experts working alongside you, you can still borrow from the same processes and strategies that underpin the success of the big brands. And it all starts with making sure that your menu stays exciting and fresh. 

Where to begin? With the following preparation.

Organize Your Menu into Categories

You need to have a real-time view of your menu and all of its moving parts if you want to make good decisions about what you should be selling, how you should be pricing it, and where you should be focusing your resources. So, to get started, make a list of every single item that you’re currently selling (or want to sell)—from the drip coffee to the chocolate cake—and organize it into food and drink categories. Using the example of our Mise Mode Menu Category Organizer (I’ll say more on this template in a bit), that will look like this:

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List Out Your Annual Holidays and Landmarks

Here’s a trade secret of the food business: the team that designed that pumpkin spice latte you like to enjoy in September did not start planning its release in August. If you want to offer seasonal and holiday food items (and I recommend that you do), you need to plan those puppies ahead. Far ahead.

I strongly recommend you look at the whole year ahead and think about what holidays you want to build menu items around (and social media campaigns!) including any local or regional special events you want to celebrate or highlight. Amazing moments like Cider Week in New York, the Restaurant Week that you’ll find in many cities, Earth Day, Black History Month, and/or any other important landmark moments you want to celebrate or amplify.

Right now, using a piece of paper or a spreadsheet or a Mise Mode template (again, more on how to get that soon), make an annual holiday and seasonal landmark calendar and plot out your whole year. You will be shocked when you see how many opportunities there are to create menu item specials for specific holiday and landmark moments. Embrace it—you need this big-picture view to make your menu system work. Seriously! Do not skip this step!

When you’re done, it will look something like this:

Build Out Your Complete Menu Plan

Now it’s time to identify the immediate and longer-term culinary and business priorities that you want to build into your annual development calendar. (Yes, your business priorities are part of your menu planning, too!) 

Your priorities are going to look different depending on your business. So, to help you determine them, list out the twelve months ahead, divide them into quarters, and then consider what you want to accomplish in each quarter—from the near-term to the end of the year—along with the ideal launch dates for each goal. Your calendar might include things like:

  • Brand-new menu features you want to launch
  • Those special seasonal products 
  • Switching any food items from outside vendors to in-house (for example, making your own ketchup or from-scratch soups)
  • New product lineups or categories (like introducing new hot grain bowls)
  • Behind-the-scenes menu changes (like changing up an ingredient, or the vendor you get it from) 
  • Equipment evaluations (like bring in a commercial rotisserie, or new grill)

Here’s a start at what that will look like, using the example of our handy Mise Mode Annual Development Calendar template:

By building and sharing an annual calendar, you will not only stay organized, you will also get a clear picture of how many different initiatives you are striving to execute at once. On top of that, you will bring all of your operations under the same spotlight—creating a level of visibility that can help ensure you won’t be spending all of your time putting out fires and untangling conflicting priorities. It will also help you see how much of your time you are investing into any given menu item—if that time is very high when the profits for that item are very low, it might be time to axe it.

And here is one more benefit to mapping out your year: if everyone on your team can see it, and everyone on your team can understand it, then everyone on your team can rally behind, suggest adjustments to it, and—perhaps most importantly—intelligently challenge it! When you have a good team with lots of expertise, you actually want to hear informed questions like: “Why are we working on developing house-made beverages right now?” or “Why are we running so many initiatives when we have limited team resources—what if we focused on doing less, better?” (Your team is your best resource, after all, so don’t waste that insight by putting them in a position where they’re just going to keep their heads down and follow orders. 

Seriously— “do not pass Go” until you get this foundational planning work planning done—and agreed on.

Now, remember how I said I’d get back to you on those templates I’ve shown you? If you want to get started on building out your calendar—and all of the other tools I have listed so far—you can get a full set of free, customizable Mise Mode templates with How to Design the Perfect Menu System.* 

*Yep, we wrote a whole guide about this topic because it’s that important to the success of your business!

Step 3: Know Your Menu’s Financial Targets and Goals

Ahhh, yes: money has entered the chat!

When it comes to developing any menu item—never mind an entire annual menu strategy—it’s critical to understand the financial targets and goals of your business, along with any operational constraints that might affect what you are capable of producing. 

You basically need to know what success looks like so you can “back into” it. (Yes, you can reverse engineer success!) You don’t want to invest anything into developing a product that your customers won’t pay for, that your chefs can’t replicate exactly across every kitchen you operate, or—and this happens a lot—that costs so much to produce and distribute that it won’t deliver enough profit to support your business. (I’m looking at you, [your favorite low-profit/high cost food item that chefs love to put on menus that take a ton of labor and ingredients to execute].) So, looking closely at your targets and holding them up as a guiding light is a fundamental practice.

Let me remind you: there is only one way a food company can make money, and that’s through selling food and drink—at enough of a profit to pay for the cost of running your business. Plus more, if you can swing it.

So, if your recipes aren’t built for deliciousness, craveability, and profit, then you and everyone on your team are screwed. I mean, just think about what else has to get paid out after you have factored in the ingredient costs. 

The profit from your recipes has to cover rent, utilities, equipment, repairs, maintenance, insurance, licensing, point-of-sale equipment, marketing, theft (yup) and breakage, accounting and bookkeeping, cleaning, furniture, linens, packaging, dishes and glasses, and all those gorgeous cooking implements. And then there are your employees! (You know—all that labor to actually make the things you make and sell the things you sell?) There are salaries, of course, but then there are also training programs, recruitment costs, HR services, payroll companies, and benefits. And don’t get me started on all the “unknown unknowns” that we all come up against in the food business. And if I haven’t said it enough, the only thing paying for all of this is all that wonderful food and drink that you put on your menu.

If you want to learn more about how to ensure your menu is designed for financial success, we have a whole chapter on financial strategies in our Mise Mode guide: How to Design the Perfect Menu System. Want to jump into some free, basic, customizable templates first? Just click on the Free Menu MGMT Tools button. 

Your menu decisions are the lifeblood of your food business—they are literally going to decide whether or not you make money. Putting financial goals at the heart of the development of each menu item will keep you in the black. (In other words: profitable and sustainable.) 

Step 4: Operations Matter a Heck of a Lot

So, now that you know what you want to put on your menu and you’re sure it’s going to both delight your customers and make money, how are you going to bring that menu to life? 

It’s never as simple as just printing a menu, no matter how tasty the food on it is. There are a whole lot of considerations you have to keep top of mind as you launch a new menu (or even just a new menu item!).  

The top-line tasks include recipe development, testing, purchasing, pricing, developing nutritionals, equipment considerations, operational constraints, training materials and development, packaging and print material development and production, IT considerations, marketing/advertising/social media planning, restaurant setup, distribution, stocking, communicating changes and goals to your team, and much more.

Oh wow, have I stressed you out with the enormity of a well-planned menu launch? Not to worry! There is no operation that can’t be made simple with a properly designed plan. And it so happens that (once again!) there is free, customizable Mise Mode Launch Timeline template in our Menu MGMT tools package. This is where you can get started on managing this process and keeping everything organized and on track. We’ve got you!

The Mise Mode Launch Timeline follows a fundamental principle that was taught to me early on and has since proven to be one of the most important lessons I’ve ever been given in menu management: keep things simple. Take a peek here:

As you can see, the Mise Mode Food Launch Timeline counts down the development of a menu item from 13 weeks out to the launch date. It’s designed to help you keep all those crazy moving parts in sync and on schedule: meetings, calculations, sign-offs, communications, operations and equipment, testing, purchasing, labeling, training—all the way to “go time.” It captures every person and team involved, each stakeholder who needs to be on board, and each step needed along the way to keep everyone informed and on track. 

And if you are an independent owner or operator? Same process for you, too—except instead of being surrounded by departments, you likely have a combination of talented folks and vendors who can support your launch efforts. Just customize this timeline to the unique needs of your business, and you’re ready to go.

So, now you have all the steps you need to design the perfect menu system for your restaurant or business. And yes, whether you have a fresh food business or CPG, these same systems and tools will apply. No longer will you ask how to make a restaurant menu? You will have all the tools and strategies you need to successfully design a restaurant menu. 

So, what are you waiting for? It’s time to get cracking!

The Importance of Restaurant Menu Design in a Food Business

You heard this at the beginning of this article, but it’s so important that I am going to say it again to wrap us up: Using your menus as a strategic system designed for success instead of only viewing your menu as a curated list of dishes is the difference between stellar financial performance and closing up shop. That means the most powerful tool you have to drive successful performance and ensure longevity is literally... your menu.  

So, while it can be really fun to focus on the physical or digital design of a menu, don’t lose sight of what’s really important: financial viability. Download the seven free restaurant menu design templates in the Mise Mode Menu MGMT tools package today to ensure that viability for your food business. Yes, today! Like, right now!


How can we make a restaurant menu? How do we get started?

In order to make a restaurant menu, you have to start at the beginning. Know who you are as a brand, what you are serving, and why. And your customer needs to know those exact same things. Check out Step 1: Know Your Brand above for more detailed information on the process—there’s lots of info there to answer these critical questions. Pro tip: Don’t get distracted with the physical design of your menu until you have done the important work of making sure you have recipes built for both craveability AND profit. How to make a restaurant menu successful is not about a piece of paper or menu board. It’s ALL about the selection and profitability of those items: each one has to drive sales and create (consistent!) cash flow. Read this whole article from nose-to-tail if you don’t know where to begin—and don’t forget to check out How to Design the Perfect Menu System. We’ve got you covered!

How do you write a good restaurant menu?

Writing a good menu is important, yes. Keeping your descriptions delicious and simple can go a long way to enticing your customers. Short and sweet is always the way! But while there are a ton of strategies for effective menu writing, in our view, a good restaurant menu is a profitable one. One that drives customers to become loyal, repeat purchasers. One that inspires and delights while ensuring you stay in business… because every single item on the menu is designed to make money so that you can stay in business.  

So, before you focus on writing a menu that is simply a curated list of scrumptious sounding dishes, do the hard work of making sure every item meets your financial goals. Not sure where to start? How to Design the Perfect Menu System gives you all the tools and strategies you need to get going right now!

What is the importance of a restaurant menu?

There is literally nothing more important than a menu in a restaurant or food business. 60% of new restaurants fail within their first year. 80% close within five years. Like I said above: there is only one way a food business can stay in business, and that’s through selling—profitably selling—food and drink. If the items you put on your menu don’t drive sales or the cost of producing and selling them is more than they earn, you are going to join that 80%.

If you want a detailed “how-to” guide for how to design the perfect menu system including free, downloadable templates and timelines that are ready to execute when you are, check out that easy to follow Mise Mode handbook

DISCLAIMER: This information is provided for general informational purposes only, and publication does not constitute an endorsement. Essayer Food Consulting does not warrant the accuracy or completeness of any information, text, graphics, links, or other items contained within this content. Essayer Food Consulting does not guarantee you will achieve any specific results if you follow any advice herein.
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