As the temperatures begin to drop and the days begin to get shorter, we instinctively begin to crave warm, hearty comfort foods. From big pots of chili, soups and stews to seasonal fruits and vegetables like Brussels sprouts, pumpkin and sweet potato, it’s all about embracing the new season.
If restaurateurs are looking for ways to draw crowds to their restaurant to increase sales volume while increasing profitability with popular dishes at low cost, a seasonal menu could be the answer. If operators have been thinking about increasing menus but aren’t convinced to take the plunge, here are some benefits of incorporating a seasonal menu.
Reduced food costs. Seasonal foods cost less. It’s a simple rule of supply and demand. As seasonal crops become plentiful, farmers can sell them at lower prices based on shear volume, giving operators better buying power.
Reduced work. Think beyond produce when determining seasonal menu items. Consider comfort foods like chili, stew and soup, meatloaf, or pie. These options are always a big hit during the cold winter months, and they’re often batch-cooked items that can reduce labor requirements and ticket times during peak hours.
Improved flavor profiles. The taste of seasonal menu items is just as important as the cost savings afforded. Most of the food that operators buy is kept in warehouses and transported a long distance before being stored, which affects the taste. Purchasing locally grown, seasonal items allows us to create great dishes with superior quality, flavor and texture using fewer ingredients.
Increased marketing power. Adding new menu items is a great reason for operators to reach customers and prospects. Loyal customers may be delighted to see new items on the menu. Even a temporary change can pique the interest of existing customers and put a restaurant on the radar of new prospects looking for something different to try.
The first step in the menu engineering process is menu costing, which involves breaking down each item on a menu into its individual ingredients and determining exactly how much it costs to create each dish.
If operators choose to do this process manually, start by listing all the ingredients used in a specific menu item. Be sure to include things like spices and cooking oil. Then calculate the cost of each ingredient in a specific dish based on the cost of the individual foods used to prepare it. Do not include labor costs in the menu item calculation.
For example, if one egg costs $0.17 and three eggs are used in the sweet potato breakfast hash, the cost of eggs for the dish is $0.51. Repeat this step with the sweet potato, bacon, bell pepper, seasonings, cooking oil, etc. to calculate the total ingredient cost. Add the cost of purchasing these items (only the food cost percentage related to the specific recipe’s food) to the cost of the ingredients to get the sweet potato breakfast food cost.
Beyond tracking usage, it’s important to track the yield of each food to get an accurate cost on recipes, especially on items used in multiple recipes. The operators need to know how much yield they or they obtained from each sweet potato to determine the total cost of each recipe. Update the cost of the recipe (part of the cost of ingredients) whenever there are price changes in food products from suppliers.
Once operators have created profitable recipes, it is important to guide customers to those menu items in the short amount of time they spend looking at the restaurant menu. While much of restaurant menu engineering can be measured with data, some of it can also be based on psychological behaviors and tendencies.
Consider these psychological tips and tricks to entice customers to order specific dishes.
- Consider separate menus, chalkboards or table tents to promote temporary special dishes. They’re hard to ignore and cheaper to create than a regular menu. These temporary menus are easy to remove if a restaurant runs out of a seasonal product.
- Use visual cues to highlight specific menu items. Place a checkbox, asterisk, or label special or new items in each menu section as “new” or “for a limited time only.”
- Emulate the concept of the “Golden Triangle”, invented by psychologists, which shows that our eye movements tend to start first in the middle of a visual, then in the upper right corner, then in the upper left. Place your signature dishes in these naturally highlighted areas.
- Psychology studies also show that people tend to remember the first and last item in a series. Place the most profitable dishes first or last in each section to guide customers in ordering these items.
- Showcase your pricing information in item descriptions, encouraging customers to focus on the item rather than the price.
- Avoid using a non-round number (like $8.99) and keep it simple by only pricing in 50 cent increments. The cost of the item would appear on the menu as 15 or 15.5 rather than $14.99 or $15.50.
- Use attractive language to describe your items. Instead of describing your seasonal dessert as “apple pie”, try “fresh seasonal apples covered in our chef’s signature caramel sauce with a hint of cinnamon and spices”. The more elaborate description commands a higher price.
Menu engineering will not only increase restaurant profits, but It can too improve customer satisfaction. While there are many moving parts needed to analyze restaurant menu performance, menu engineering can help protect the bottom line, ensure healthy contribution margins and increase sales growth in the future.
John Moody is co-founder and chief strategist of Restaurant365 where he focuses on long-term strategic initiatives and building key partnerships. He has over 20 years of experience helping companies leverage technology to streamline operations, improve financial management, and use actionable reporting. John has a passion for technology and productivity and uses these elements to dedicate time to the things that matter. He holds an undergraduate degree from Brigham Young University and an MBA from Pepperdine University.