by David Klemt

How and Why to Edit Your Menu

by Nathen Dube

Restaurant tables with place settings and menus

When thinking about opening a restaurant an important question to answer is, “What am I going to serve?”

There is one answer that tempts too many restauranteurs: “I’ll offer something for everyone!” The thinking is that doing so translates into everyone coming to their restaurant or bar.

The truth is, everyone isn’t coming. Sadly, many of these places don’t survive long, and 60 percent of restaurants don’t make it past their first year. Having an overwhelming menu is one of the key contributors to that statistic.

Massive menus are stressful for guests, making it difficult for them to decide. At a certain point, too many items create what’s called the Fallacy of Choice. Overwhelm guests with possibilities and they’ll just choose something simple and familiar rather than exploring the entire menu, impacting the guest experience negatively.

Too many options also lend to the perception of low-quality food. How can a kitchen staff possibly excel at so many dishes? How can the ingredients be fresh and not frozen? What is the quality of dishes if people only order them once or twice a week?

Those reasons and more are why it’s important to have a laser-focused menu from the onset.

Inventory Challenges

If a large portion of your menu isn’t moving out of the kitchen to hungry diners, guess where that food is going. A large menu creates tracking issues, a high percentage of ingredient spoilage, and opens the door to theft from staff. The best establishments do just a handful of things well, with a select few complementary items to round out the menu.

Having a kitchen full of product for dishes on the menu that might get ordered can quickly turn into dead stock. If there are boxes sitting in dry storage shelves collecting dust, it’s a good time to consider removing any dishes that require them from the menu.

Setting a scheduled review of inventory and menu sales breakdowns can be a great way to avoid dead stock eating into your food budget for any significant length of time. Not all dishes end up being winners—ignoring the losers will limit profitability significantly. A massive, unchecked menu just compounds the issue.

Another profit-eater is food waste. Ordering usually means receiving product in bulk and breaking it down. It’s near impossible, as an example, to order just two or four of something like cabbage for a dish that doesn’t move. The cabbage sits, and half a case gets thrown out for every dish sold. Having a focused menu will help quickly highlight items that need to be removed from a menu.

Tracking Issues

Then there’s the issue of theft. Unfortunately, theft happens. Having some deterrents in place can help mitigate opportunities for those who seek to steal in this industry.

If there aren’t robust tracking systems in place along with an honest team who uses them correctly, things can (and will) disappear. A much harder time will be had spotting losses and what’s causing them when it takes a long time to track inventory. Again, this leads to compounded profit losses on dead stock and product spoilage. We haven’t even begun to prepare any food yet and already our food cost is trending in a bad direction.

A restaurant budget needs to be established before opening and needs to be adhered to strictly. That can quickly go out the window when it comes to ordering food to stock your kitchen. A massive addition to your operating costs can set you back a few months, particularly when you’re not seeing a return on purchases for the reasons stated above.

With the current climate of the restaurant industry and a post-Covid dining scene, avoiding these pitfalls is crucial to success. Rising food and labour costs, recovering from months of closures, and a shortened patio season (if you’re lucky enough to have one), have made strict cost controls more important than ever going forward.

Keep in mind, if your seating capacity matches or is less than the amount of menu items you’re serving, that equates to minimal product turnover, which translates to minimal profits. That number is multiplied by product loss of any kind.

Training & Retention

When an owner can’t match their concept to food and drink offerings, it leads to poorly trained staff and frustration during service. There will be plenty of room for error (more loss!) and, unsurprisingly, low staff retention. That all keeps this never-ending cycle in motion.

If you can’t clarify your vision, how can you expect staff to showcase it to guests with any confidence?

At every “big menu” restaurant I’ve worked in, the owners were always in the building or kitchen. This wasn’t because they were driven to be hands on. It was because they couldn’t train staff properly to run the whole menu reliably, things would go “missing,” or staff simply couldn’t accomplish daily tasks consistently.

Interestingly, the opposite was true at establishments with small, focused menus. Staff were confident and knowledgeable, problems with food and service didn’t spiral out of control, and food moved out the door to some degree of consistency. The owners were freed up to run their business rather than micromanage everyone.

With all the issues currently hampering the food industry, the last thing you want right now is another level of frustration among your staff. Retention rates are at an all-time low. The struggle to fill job openings industry-wide are at all-time high, as are reported cases of staff walking out mid-service. A properly structured menu can keep your business on track and make the lives of your employees much more simplified.

Editing Your Menu

Focusing on cohesion between menu and concept doesn’t require offering all the dishes under the sun. Avoiding the “something for everyone” approach leads to improved guest experiences and employee confidence. Streamlining your menu simplifies inventory and sales tracking; differentiates high-profitability items from the rest; and makes identifying items that don’t sell easier.

Paring down your menu into a tight, focused version allows you to quickly retool it every few months. Just try tracking and editing a large four-page menu as frequently. It’s costly to reprint and you have better things to do with your time.

Keeping things tight also creates space to take advantage of seasonal offerings, local specialties, or customer favorites. You can also offer specials throughout the week that can drive traffic and give your talented cooks a chance to show off!

I would suggest looking over your sales data to identify your highest-selling dishes and the slow movers every one to two months. If you have a seasonal menu, this can be done at the midpoint of a seasonal change.

Think about what items are being purchased and only used in one dish. They can start to pile up in your stockroom and lead to dead stock. Consider the versatility of ingredients when planning a menu change—cross-utilize everything you can.

Fluctuating Costs

Another important point that can get forgotten is that the prices of food items fluctuate constantly. Maintaining a large menu, therefore, can become a nightmare cost scenario quickly. Limes, beef, avocados—even celery—are experiencing tremendous jumps in price. A small menu allows for damage control when prices jump, giving your room to make quick, lower-cost moves.

Of course, the alternative is to have your staff rattle off everything the kitchen is out of to your guests. Not cool.

The underlying theme here is to avoid tying up your finances in product that is sitting, turning to waste instead of profit, or not moving at all. Your mission is to have product moving out of the kitchen constantly and consistently.

It might seem like a wise decision to offer a large menu that’s all over the place. Maybe you’re making that choice for fear of alienating guests or reducing your traffic. However, the points made in this article should illustrate why a cohesive link between concept and menu is crucial, and how a smaller, more focused menu can deliver more for you than a large, out-of-touch menu.

Image: Karolina Grabowska from Pixabay