Menu Design Hasn’t Changed

The Lempert Report
May 23, 2017

Words still matter and descriptive labels still work

I first learned the 'ins and outs' of what is important on a restaurant’s menu when I was asked to design one for the long gone Jonathan’s restaurant on route 17 in Hasbrouck Heights New Jersey. And it's something that supermarkets should be studying for their grocerants. 

First thing to remember is that some menu items are more expensive to produce than others based on their ingredient cost and the difficulty in preparation – but too many different pricings on a menu may confuse consumers which is why so many menus, even those in very expensive white table cloth restaurants, present these items in a special area, using contained within a box. Which is where your eye goes first. 

A Gallup Poll found that we spend just 109 seconds reading a restaurant menu that we are unfamiliar with. Much like scanning the 50,000 products on supermarket shelves, people don’t give the proper time to make their decision. Which is why you need to create sections – just as you do for the overhead signs for each aisle of the store. 

Most researchers seem to agree that when diners scan a menu, their eyes tend to gravitate first toward the upper right-hand corner of a menu, known in the industry as the “sweet spot.” Just the opposite of the way we read a book or magazine. So, many restaurants place the menu item they want to sell most (often an expensive dish) in that location. When scanning vertically arranged menus, customers tend to spend the most time looking at the first and last items. 

And of course color has a significant impact – the same way it does on the shelf. Researchers find that red and blue are generally thought to help trigger appetite. 

And words do matter. Dr. Brian Wansink, the director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University conducted a study that found that descriptive menu labels (such as “succulent Italian seafood filet” vs. “seafood filet”) resulted in customers feeling more satisfied with their meal. Comparing dishes labeled with sensory descriptors such as “tender,” “succulent,” and “satin”; cultural/geographic terms like “Cajun” and “Italian”; and nostalgic terms like “homestyle,” “traditional,” and “Grandma’s” versus the same meals without those extra descriptors revealed an important insight: the descriptive labels increased sales by 27%.