Addressing Menu Voids for Survival

Restaurants need to ensure that their menus match the needs of their customers.  Understanding who the customer is now, and in the next few years, is essential in order to engender long term loyalty and remain profitable.  However, menus can languish for years as habits become ingrained. When did you last perform a thorough, honest audit on your menu in relation to your customer profile and the long-term future of your operation?  DSL Northwest is an expert in helping clients to optimize their menus, and the following recommendations are based on years of experience in advising some of the best-known names in the Pacific Northwest and the USA:

Appealing to Changing Tastes

A new generation of customers including both Millennials and Generation Y are looking for menu items that appeal to them. They have different needs to previous generations that need to be considered including:

1. Healthier options – not necessarily weight-loss but organic and ‘free-from’

2. Snacking – the all-day occasion that is rapidly replacing the traditional lunch occasion

3. Seasonal – dishes that reflect food without the miles and with more taste

4. Weather – serving the right dishes at the right time of year such as pasta sales up in winter

5. Locally sourced ingredients – a radius of known, local suppliers

6. Innovative dishes such as dessert alternatives e.g. sippables from the bar

Operators should review their menus at least every year or more in addition to fresh sheets. It is vital to understand the changing demographic in your region and offer menu items that will appeal to them. It is no longer possible to assume that your restaurant will survive if it is ageing alongside its core customer base.  To help get a feel for any changes in the local demographic, scope out nearby stores, facilities and other restaurants to identify who you are targeting in order to remain viable and profitable. For example, if younger families are now the target, then you need to be doing something to attract the children; 75% of restaurant visits are decided by family members under the age of 18.   Add a separate kid-friendly menu, include dishes that appeal to a younger demographic or include ‘free’ items such as sodas, desserts or treats.

Your Menu is Your Voice

Menus need to go further than a list of dishes.  Today, they need to communicate brand values and likeminded thinking with their customers.  Are you going the extra distance that your customers will want to know about such as:

* Community support – how do you give back to the local community?

* Environmentally friendly – do you incorporate activities such as composting and recycling?

* Ethical – do you source ingredients from reputable suppliers/treat employees fairly/fair-trade?

Often restaurants are fulfilling almost all of the above, but they fail to communicate this with the customer and thereby create valuable connections.  Your menu needs to work in tandem with marketing and branding activities and convey the essence of the restaurant; talk about your activities – they matter to people.

For example, on a previous blog we have addressed the issue of sourcing locally from within a 300 mile radius.   If this is something you have adopted, how are you making the most of this?  Highlight specific partnerships or certain local suppliers more prominently on the menu and through marketing routes.  And be honest; are they genuinely new and different to appeal to the customers you want to attract?   If everyone is partnering with this group, can you improve on this?  Perhaps you have a partnership with a seafood supplier who prides themselves on sustainable fishing methods.  Your menu and your brand should also communicate this pride.

Affiliations to the community are now expected.  But the reason why you have chosen to work with them and what you are doing often gets forgotten.   Your menu provides an opportunity to creatively communicate any community partnerships through design and/or narrative techniques.

Flexibility, Flexibility, Flexibility

Customization: Think differently about how your menu works in response to the meteoric rise in the demand for customization of dishes.  Customers want to be able to select a mixture of proteins, starch and vegetable combinations and create their own dishes such as Kigo Kitchen. Balancing the needs of the customer without adversely affecting the cooking time or process is important, so offering enough options to provide choice is key but not at the expense of the efficiency of the kitchen.

Interestingly this hasn’t yet been seen with burgers to the same degree as with other foods such as MOD Pizza and its incredibly successful customization model that also enhances the customer experience.  Salad bar concepts have been highly effective in adopting the customization model early to appeal to customers and especially in cities where a hungry workforce can experience maybe a dozen standardized recipes where they interchange the protein and other ingredients.

We believe that the opportunity exists in the burger sector to create e.g. a standard burger with different cheese options, additional vegetable and protein options. For example, a standard 6oz burger costing approx. $8.95 could increase to $12.45 with the addition of extra items.

Available Ingredients: Utilizing ingredients that are readily available and more cost effective is another way to provide variety and choice.  The chefs menu, in addition to the set menu, is a model already tried and tested by a number of white cloth and smaller community restaurants.  However, it doesn’t mean it should remain as the preserve of these groups.   The chef’s menu typically services ingredients that are available that week.

Seven Key Questions

Finally, these are the main seven questions DSL Northwest recommends you should be asking yourself now in order to create a profitable menu:

1. Is my menu sustainable? Can I keep ingredients as fresh as possible? Do I have multiple dishes that utilize ingredients or do I have legacy menu items that feature a limited amount of ingredients?  Is this an ineffective use of ingredients and therefore creates cook-time inefficiencies?  This is a priority to interrogate on your menu!

2. When was the last time I introduced a new seasonal item to the menu?

3. Is my menu designed for the new eating occasions such as more frequent snacking throughout the day?

4. Do I understand my local area’s customer profile and can I attract more customers with a revised menu? For example, if I want to attract families, have I incorporated items for the children (3-12 years old)? Or do I have an offer that will make the experience memorable such as free ice cream cone?

5. Does my menu include items that can help to drive additional revenue such as creative bar choices that can replace desserts? Boozy Shakes, Signature craft desserts, shareable offerings?

6. Am I incorporating best practices into my menu that will appeal to a new generation of customers such as local sourcing, organic and transparency of ingredients, flavors and food preparation?

7. What am I doing to create menu items that customers can be ordered on the go as take-out or delivery? Am I looking to work with third parties such as UberEATS?  If not, you could be missing out on valuable business as an increasingly tech-savvy generation prefers to order online.


To understand how you can conduct a thorough audit and optimization of your menu, call us at DSL NorthWest on 877-665-1125 for a free consultation.

Photograph courtesy of Melissa Hartfiel 

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