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Why Make A Better Menu

This blog post is about how to make a better menu and why make a better menu. I pick on a local restaurant, but these ideas can be applied to more than three-quarters of the restaurants around the world.

I was insulted the other evening with my wife and her family at The Paddock Club in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. But I can’t really blame them, they are, after all, in a Podunk of sorts. But the promise of the restaurant is definitely upscale, and they are in a very beautiful resort community with a lot of out-of-town guests. So when we met up with friends for dinner, I was ready to be impressed. And then I got the menu. I call it a menu, but really, it was a crumpled, limp sheet of paper with food items and a price list. The descriptions were nothing more than a list of ingredients. Nothing in it helped get me excited to eat there. And worse yet, nothing stood out.

It’s like the owners of the restaurant were saying: “Hey, we threw this together, you figure it out.”

It was truly awful, to the point where my sister-in-law commented: “Wow, this is really a bad menu, isn’t it Mark.” Yup, really bad. And it made the food taste mediocre, too. Seriously, when you give no thought and creativity to the menu, the first impression of the food is truly diminished. And you cannot make a first impression more than once.

Then I got to thinking. Maybe they just don’t know any better. Maybe they’re ignorant. Not insulting, but instead, just uneducated about design, writing and restaurant menu engineering. So perhaps we can fix this and so many other upscale restaurants I’ve been to. So if you get an email from me on this topic, it’s possible it will help you, and the next time I dine with you, I won’t be insulted.

Thinking more deeply, and having a lot of experience with restaurants of every size, shape and style, I also know first hand the reasons restaurant operators make their own menus. They want control, they change the menu a lot and they want the menu to look upscale, and they don’t think a menu design-engineering company can do those things for them. Oh, and they typically don’t want to spend any money on the menu, either.

Let’s look at each reason why restaurant owners have bad menus individually.


It’s a funny thing, control. From the operator’s perspective, they want to change up the recipes and offerings every few days or weeks. Or maybe they have customers who come in every day and want something different. Or perhaps they just cannot tell when the mood to make something extraordinary will come over them. The culinary muse is like that. She can visit you at any time, night or day, so you best have a menu that can change at a moments notice.

Sadly, these are good intentions that are almost never made good on. Well, at least not at the restaurant I’ve visited week-to-week. Like the Paddock Club example, I was there in August and they had pretty much the same menu they had in late September. The only difference, in August, they had some text and the paper was a linen stock with cotton fibers and a watermark. Not well designed, but hey, they’re food people, not design people. They maybe don’t know that, but then, they’re obviously more concerned with control than knowing what they’re good at, so you wind up with pretty good food from a really stupid menu, which happens all the time, not just to them.

They’re Cheap.

Or inexpensive, or keeping costs down, or, well, cheap. It’s all the same. Most consumers would be surprised at just how cheap restaurant people can be sometimes. Not always. We have worked with a large number of restaurant operators who only want the best menu for their restaurant and are willing to pay for it. But there are a number of restaurant operators who are penny wise and dollar foolish.

But when you think about it from the change angel, and a menu can get a little more expensive. And when you’re a restaurant operator, you will try to use PowerPoint, or Microsoft Word, or Publisher, or that god-awful program, Menu Pro to build a menu, and no self-respecting professional designer will work in those programs.

Well, I’ve tried to work in them first hand, but never again. And a restaurant owner is very unlikely to order up Creative Suite for a couple of grand and then learn how to use it properly. We worked with this one guy, Benny, who insisted we work in Microsoft Word. Then he insisted on the type styles, the size of the menu and then bitched the whole time about how bad it looked. Never again; it doesn’t do the restaurant operator any good and it most certainly only brings heartache and misery to our design team.


There is a pervasive idea that a high-end, upscale menu should be minimalist, with thin type and single number prices all lined up at outer edges. Take the Pump Room menu as an example, minimalist is maybe the intent, but stark is more like it.

Everything on the menu is lined up nice so you can shop it on price. The highest price on the menu is thirty-seven dollars for grilled beef tenderloin. The exact definition is grilled beef tenderloin, market squash with Parmesan cheese and buttery hot sauce. Which leaves everything to the imagination. And while I’m sure it’s good, it does absolutely nothing to encourage me to purchase the item. And since it’s the most expensive item on the menu, my guess is it could use a push.

Since I’ve eaten at Pump room, I know a little about the food. It’s good, much better than the menu or really any of their restaurant marketing. The service is good, the décor is mostly excellent, too, but the menu should make a better statement. Upscale doesn’t need to mean the marketing should suck.

Then they have a section called Simply Prepared and a list of proteins without descriptions. One can only guess that these items are al la carte. So it would appear the squash is worth seven bucks. That or the two cuts of tenderloin are not the same.


People want to know what you recommend and why. I’ll say that again, because it’s worth repeating so it sinks into your superior blindness. Your guests want to know what you are thinking. They want to know what your recommend. They want to be led. And to do otherwise is nothing short of rude. It is your duty to make a menu using the most sophisticated processes, the highest level of creative writing and the absolute highest quality design and execution. A combination that will guide your guests through the menu process and help them make better decisions, and enjoy themselves more.

50 Shades of Menu Design.

The most popular and highest grossing book is 50 Shades Of Grey. It made its author a fortune and aroused an entire nation. It wasn’t well written, in my opinion, but it does suggest a very important idea. People like to be lead, and they want to be romanced. Do that and you will have a much more successful restaurant and a much happier guest.

Why do people go out to dinner?

To eat, right? Sure, that’s part of it. They also go out to eat because it’s fun. It’s sensual, exciting, like a mini vacation, and shame on you if you don’t make eating at your restaurant an experience that your guests can get excited about. Paddock Club, take note: you have a real opportunity to give your guests the gift of a better experience. Your guest will like the food better, will want to dine with you more often and are more likely to talk about it more as well. And if you are going to expect your guests to spend a few hundred dollars in your restaurant, the least you can do is impress them with a terrific menu.

Why the best operators use HotOperator.

HotOperator is a marketing boutique specializing in menu design-engineering, restaurant marketing, classic marketing, consulting and brand building. We immerse ourselves into your business like no other marketing company and offer you real solutions that will help you build your business in measurable ways. Our process is unique, and our menus are of the highest quality, designed specifically for your business. Everything we do is custom and balances science and art perfectly.

Unlike other advertising agencies, we are truly specialist in food marketing, drawing on nearly three decades of experience to create real marketing magic. Click the link to set an introductory consultation.

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