The Incredible Shrinking Menu

Two women looking at menu

McDonald’s made headlines recently by simplifying its 100-plus-item menu to reduce consumer confusion and boost order speed. The news sharpened the industry’s focus on smaller menus.

Datassential, which tracks menu trends, reports that average menu size has declined each year since 2009. Technomic Inc. reported that the total number of menu items at the nation’s top 500 restaurant chains declined by 7.1 percent from 2013 to 2014, led by a 9 percent decline in entrées.

We asked several Gordon Food Service experts to share ideas about optimal-sized menus.

Get creative

“The longer the menu, the more costly it is to maintain,” says Gordon Food Service Corporate Consulting Chef Gerry Ludwig, CEC. “A smaller menu allows you to streamline your inventory. Fewer dishes are less complicated for the kitchen to execute,” Ludwig says. “Consistency is easier to maintain. Faster inventory turnover means fresher ingredients.”

“A smaller, more manageable menu allows your creativity to come through,” notes Gordon Food Service Consulting Chef Robert Granberg, CEC. “When you’re not responsible for prepping, forecasting, and executing 100 items on a menu, you have more time to create layers of flavor and texture in each dish. That differentiates your restaurant from the competition.”

Is there an ideal number of menu items? “I’m seeing lots of new menus with just 18 to 24 items,” Granberg says. 

Think brand first

“Your menu is your brand statement,” says Gordon Food Service Commercial Segment Marketing Leader Bob Koch. “It should be clear, bold, and uniquely identifiable—it should tell your customers who you are.”

Menu simplification also requires an understanding of your customers. “Do you have a higher baby-boomer clientele looking for a more personal connection? Or millennials who favor customized menus offering fresh ingredients?” 

Be strategic

“Whenever we do a menu analysis for a customer, we invariably find that 20 percent of the menu drives 80 percent of the profit,” says Gordon Food Service Commercial Segment Leader Todd Gross, CEC. 

“That provides a great basis for paring down the menu. You need a strategy to guide you through the process.” 

There are always items that sell really well but don’t add much profit. Can you reinvent them? Can you cross-utilize ingredients more effectively? How many items should you have in each menu category? Should you even have menu categories? 

Bill Barker, Gordon Food Service Product Specialist for Grocery/Bakery, suggests that categories can be useful. “If you list an item under ‘Entrées,’ snackers may think it’s too much to eat.”

“It’s a lot of work to do this,” Gross says. “But it inevitably pays off.”

Watch your language

Simpler menus require simpler language, Barker says. “Most of today’s hot-concept establishments have adopted a one-page menu. Think about making your menu descriptions less wordy and spend more time educating your staff to provide details.”

“Clearly denote menu parts and make it easy for customers to navigate through and make decisions,” Barker says.

Build some buzz

Brenda Adler, Gordon Food Service Product Specialist for Grocery/Bakery, concurs that operators should choose their menu descriptors carefully. 

“Buzzwords are a great way to get attention,” says Gordon Food Service Product Specialist for Grocery/Bakery Brenda Adler. List natural, gluten-free, GMO-free, healthy, sustainable, local, housemade, fresh, and unique as some of the terms that are important to today’s consumers. “These can help attract new customers to your door and keep them coming back.”

Supplement with specials

Daily specials and limited-time offers are critical when implementing a smaller menu.

“They keep things exciting for the customers and give operators an opportunity to highlight even more profitable items,” Gross says. 

Stand your ground

“Stand firm against that handful of customers who will complain when a dish goes missing from the menu,” Ludwig advises. “Explain that you’re going through a process that involves some hard decisions.”

Learn from experience

Jim Hodiluk co-owns Stella’s, a charcuterie restaurant, and Swig, a gastropub, both in Perrysburg, Ohio. He and his partner morphed the menus of both operations a few years ago. “We cut the number of items and simplified the language—no more flowery adjectives, just matter-of-fact descriptions,” he says. “We actually cut some items that had been in the top five, sales-wise, because they didn’t fit the story we wanted to tell. And we put more emphasis on specials, doing three to four a day.”

The result? “Easier-to-manage inventory, a more efficient kitchen and terrific customer response.”

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