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Menus 101: The Do’s and Don’ts of How to Write a Menu
We previously touched on menu design in Create the Optimal Menu Layout with 13 Menu Hacks and 5 Menu Printing Design Tips That Will Entice You. But we’ve noticed that while there are plenty of articles online on the visual design and use experience of menus, there isn’t a lot of material out there specific to how to write a menu.
Menu writing is an underappreciated artform. All too often we see writing on menus that seems like an effort by the designers to just get it over with. At its most basic, a menu is not much more than a directory of items. But learning how to write a menu can make it so much more. Your menu is a tool to help your brand develop long term relationships with your customers. It is also where you fight to earn their business. It can even be a place to capture their imagination.
Most people don’t spend that much time talking to the service staff, so a menu will often serve as the primary closer for your sales. The importance of menu writing cannot be overlooked, especially in situations where customers may not necessarily see the food they want before they order it. We compiled a few do’s and don’ts of how to write a menu below to help you create menus that encourage customers to buy — and keep them coming back.
5 Do’s of How to Write a Menu
1.) Do use evocative vocabulary.
It’s not enough to describe your offers. You’ll need to use words that make your customers feel. For example, instead of “very spicy” you can use words like “flaming hot.” Instead of “delicious” you can use “mouthwatering.” “Bitter” can instead be “earthy.” According to a 2001 study by Cornell researchers, descriptive labelling increased sales by as much as 27%. If that’s not enough to convince you learning how to write a menu isn’t worth investing in, nothing will.
2.) Do match writing with branding.
Whatever content you choose to include in your menu has to follow your brand image. The language, design, and visual elements you use have to be appropriate to both your target market and how you want your brand to appear. Most brands can get by with a friendly, neutral tone. However, if you know your market better you may try some calculated risks in your writing to better appeal to it.
3.) Do invest in quality printing to better show off your content.
Several studies strongly suggest that our perception of the value of a good or service can be strongly influenced by the feel of items we touch, via the endowment effect. In simpler terms, quality printing will multiply the effect of your writing and will give it more credibility. Cheaper, low-quality menus, on the other hand, can easily dilute the effect of all your hard work creating quality content, affecting both your brand and your conversions adversely.
4.) Do categorize your menu content.
Arranging your items efficiently cuts down on table turnaround times, helping your staff serve more customers promptly. It’s a little bit more involved than just separating desserts and entrees though. You may want to consider repeating an item on a different section if it complements another dish. Or you could write recommended pairing when applicable.
5.) Do consider A-B testing your menus.
When learning how to write a menu, mistakes are inevitable. Like any other sales tool, no menu can ever be perfect. There is always room for improvement. But some menu designs and copy are better than others at making a sale. You can see this for yourself by running an A-B test on different versions of your menus. For instance, you can try different versions on different weeks, or use alternate menus only at specific tables. You can easily gather data on the conversion rates of different menu content this way. This method also ensures you don’t invest too much time and money on a sub-optimal menu.
5 Don’ts of How to Write a Menu
1.) Don’t talk about money.
Removing dollar signs from your menus will encourage customers to spend more per transaction. This is because the presence of a dollar sign makes the fact that you are paying money a bit more “real.” Extending the idea further, it’s best to not refer to any items as “value meals” or use any term that suggests price. Don’t write references to price or value in your item descriptions. The exception of course would be if you’re trying to compete with other restaurants in your category for price alone.
2.) Don’t forget your online menus.
A recent study, suggests 80% of customers will want to see a menu before physically going to a restaurant. This makes sense, considering everyone has a smartphone and checking online before we go anywhere new is just how we all do things these days. Even if your restaurant doesn’t deliver, it’s best to have your menu items on your website, or at the very least, on your social media page.
The written content for your online menus should follow SEO and social media principles appropriate for the medium. For instance, you may want to use appropriate trending hashtags on Twitter, or do some localized keyword research for your website, so that your restaurant and its items are easier to find in a search. If you’re developing a website, be sure to include Schema.org restaurant markups on your site to take advantage of the added functionality when customers search for your business.
3.) Don’t make your menu hard to read.
If you’ve looked up how to write a menu before, you might have come across the “zigzag theory”. In the 1970s a graphic designer named William Doerfler created the groundwork for modern menu design. His initial observation was that diners’ eyes tended to zigzag across the pages before settling into a sweet spot on the right-hand page. While the idea that there is a “magic spot” on the right-hand page has been discredited since then, his idea to track eye movement is still central to menu design.
In 2012 San Francisco State University hospitality management professor, Sybil Yang, used a retinal scanner and found crucially that we don’t just mindlessly scan menus. Rather, most of us actually do read menus critically. This means that, yes, the copy that you attach to each item is important and shouldn’t be an afterthought to your menu design.
Given that the average time a customer spends on a menu is around 109 seconds, it can be useful to think of each piece of copy attached to a menu item as an elevator pitch. In most cases this means avoiding fluff, and focusing on persuading the customer to buy the item in as few words as possible, in a way that stays true to your brand.
4.) Don’t forget to be authentic.
You want to avoid extraneous details in your copy, but you’ll also want to dedicate some time to crafting something that makes the whole dining experience more “real.” If there’s a bit of interesting history behind the dish, or some trivia that diners might appreciate, consider including it. Adding these details to your copy can help create a more complete experience for your diners.
5.) Don’t discount storytelling.
Storytelling is perhaps the most important thing you will discover when you learn how to write a menu. Seth Godin famously posted that brands are modern day myths. Nearly every single successful brand has a story behind it, and not all of them are necessarily true. This might be even more true for restaurants, given how central food is to the human psyche. We don’t really believe that a clown runs McDonald’s. Same with the neighborhood deli down the street — how sure are we that the stuff is just like what grandpa used to make?
Chances are you already have an interesting story behind your brand. If you don’t, add a little magic to the story. Your menus should spread that story around. Your standard designs and your entire brand should embrace and revolve around it. To develop a lasting, meaningful relationship with customers, it’s not enough to feed their stomachs. You should feed their imagination as well.
What other menu writing tips can you share? Comment below.
Arthur Piccio is a feature writer and subject matter expert for the PrintPlace Blog. In his spare time he studies guitar and writes about goats.