The Ultimate Guide to Menu Design

The Ultimate Guide to Menu Design

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2018 was a banner year for restaurants in the US. Restaurant sales grew from $798.7 billion in 2017 to $825 billion in 2018. That growth is largely in part to restaurateurs increasing their margins and approaching their menu more strategically.

There’s no doubt that the restaurant industry is on the upswing. Customers are spending more, which is a great opportunity for you to capitalize on. But when there’s an opportunity, there’s typically fierce competition. About 60,000 new restaurants open annually in the US, with 50,000 closing — a net gain of 10,000 new restaurants (read: new competitors) per year.

That’s why we’ve written the definitive guide for restaurant menu design. Your menu should represent the spirit of your establishment, stand out from the competition, and scale your profits.

To build the ultimate restaurant menu, you’ll need to:

  1. Analyze your sales reports
  2. Categorize your menu items
  3. Determine which dishes to feature on your menu
  4. Get strategic with your menu layout
  5. Create an alluring cocktail menu


1. Analyze your sales reports

This first step is the most important — to improve your menu, you need to base your decisions on data. Data is the best way to quantify your menu’s effectiveness, grow profits, and measure results. Thankfully, your restaurant POS should be able to pull up easy-to-understand, comprehensive sales reports without a hitch.


When calculating a menu item’s profitability, look at the total number of units sold, not the profitability of a single unit. High-profit items won’t impact your bottom line if you’re not frequently selling them.


For example

Imagine this is your appetizer menu. Your sales data indicates that the butternut squash soup is popular and could probably earn you more profit. You decide to raise the selling price to $5.95, a boost that you don’t think will negatively impact sales. You also raise the selling price of the popular tuna tataki dish by $2.00 and decrease your lobster cake’s price by $1.05, which you project will increase sales by 50%, bringing in an additional $31.40 profit daily. These three small price changes boost your daily profit by $119.20.


Want to get a full breakdown of how to optimize your food costs? Click here to get a step-by-step breakdown.



2. Categorize your menu items

Now that you’ve got a solid picture of each menu item’s profitability, it’s time to put each into categories. Audit your existing menu to see what dishes are making you the most money, and which aren’t. The best way to get a comprehensive overview of each menu item’s profitability is with a menu matrix.

A menu matrix is an instant visual aid used to map out the sales volume and gross income of each menu item. Simply put, it helps you understand which food is best for your bottom line.

Creating a menu matrix starts with plotting your current menu items on an X and Y axis based on their popularity and profitability. Each item falls into one of these four categories:

  • Plow-Horses/Cash Cows: low profit, highly popular items. Because of their low profit margins, you shouldn’t draw too much attention to these items in your menu design.
  • Stars: high profit, popular items. You want to draw as much attention to these menu items as possible.
  • Dogs/Duds: low profit, low popularity items. These items don’t necessarily need to be cut from your menu. Sometimes a little rework (either to price or the ingredients used) is all you need to turn it into one of your Star dishes. Ask customers for their feedback and see how what types of tweaks they’d like to see.
  • Puzzles: high profit, low popularity items. Consider renaming this item, changing the copy on your menu, or having your wait staff suggest it more to your guests to drive a higher volume of sales.

Once you create your menu matrix, it will look something like this:


A menu matrix helps you visualize how important each dish is for your revenue. Now, you need to think about which dishes will make the cut and be featured in your new and improved menu.


3. Determine which dishes to feature in your menu

Let’s dive into the psychology of choice. Put simply, FOMO (fear of missing out) is a real thing; having too many menu items isn’t ideal. Why? Because when confronted with too many options, customers have a harder time deciding what they want and are more likely to be unsatisfied with the choice they do make (“I wonder if I should have bought the tuna tataki instead?”).

How many menu items should you have?

A study out of Bournemouth University found that the answer depends on what type of restaurant you run.

For fast-food and quick service restaurants, the sweet spot was six menu items per category (starters, fish, chicken, steaks and burgers, grills and classic meat dishes, pasta, vegetarian, and desserts). For fine-dining and sit-down restaurants, the sweet spot was seven starters and desserts, with ten main courses.


Use the data from your sales analysis and menu matrix and choose the most profitable and popular items for your menu. This all but assures that no matter what choice a customer makes, it’s good for your restaurant’s bottom line.


4. Get strategic with your menu layout

A well-designed menu will influence your guests’ purchasing, while clearly communicating your restaurant’s brand. Is there a specific high-revenue dish you want your customers to focus on? Your menu design can help make that happen. Here are the top things to consider in your menu design:

Make a great first impression

Your menu, along with your restaurant’s interior design, are what communicate your restaurant’s brand to guests loud and clear. You need to make sure that the visual aesthetic of your menu corresponds to your restaurant’s image and what kind of dining experience you want your guests to have.

According to a Gallup poll, the average guest only scans a menu for approximately 109 seconds. That means your menu has a little over one minute to make a great first impression. Assume you don’t have your guests’ undivided attention and design your menu to be as easy to scan as possible. Use clear section headings, short dish descriptions, and clean, minimal design.

Plan out your menu item placement  

Ideally, your guests should see all of your menu items at a glance. Two-page menus are the most ideal format. It gives you enough space to lay out all your dishes in a way that’s easily scannable for guests.

You’re going to want to break your menu down by sections: entrees, main courses, sides, and desserts. Alternatively, you can have a separate, smaller menu specifically for your desserts and cocktails. This minimizes clutter and gives your main menu more space to work with. 


                                                                Menu sourced from


Consider using different font sizes or photos to make the dishes in your sweet spot stand out even more.

On a two-page menu, guests typically spend most of their time looking at the center of the right-hand side (known as your “sweet spot”), followed by the first and last items of each column. Place your highest-profit dishes and biggest sellers in these areas so that they’re the first thing your guests see.

Emphasize your Stars and Cash Cows

Along with using sweet spots to your advantage, you can use “eye magnets” to draw your guests’ attention towards certain dishes.

Eye magnets can be a photo of the dish, a graphic illustration, a differently colored box, a border, or any other attention-getter that makes that dish or area of the menu stand out from the rest.

For example

This menu groups the most expensive menu items together, surround them with a frame and includes graphic illustrations. The result? Your eye is intentionally drawn to that area of the menu first.


Menu sourced from

Be strategic with which menu items you use eye magnets for. The more you use, the less impact they have. Limit yourself to one eye magnet per menu category (appetizers, entrees, main courses, etc). With that in mind, try only using eye magnets for your Star and Cash Cow items.

Use photos wisely

The volume of photos you use in your menu, along with the overall effectiveness of those photos, depends on what type of restaurant you’re running.

Pairing every menu item with a photo is commonly associated with fast food, low price point establishments. That’s why higher-end restaurants tend to avoid oversaturating their menu with photos  they don’t want their restaurant to come off as looking cheap. Alternatively, If you want your restaurant to look high-end and are cautious about using photos, consider using graphic illustrations instead.

                   Here, Alchemy shows how to use graphic illustrations and have great visual results.


Menu Engineer Gregg Rapp reports that for mid-range, affordable restaurants,  featuring one image per page can increase sales of that item by as much as 30%. So if you’re going to use a photo, consider using them wisely and featuring the dishes you want to draw more attention to.

Low-quality images defeat the purpose of featuring a photo in the first place. They can make your food look less appealing than it actually is. If you feature images, ensure that they capture the dishes ingredients, colors, and textures and don’t forget presentation! Take the time to plate each dish. All the pros are doing it.

Write air-tight meal descriptions

You want your menu to be as easy to read and understand as possible while describing each dish in a way that they sound interesting and enticing to your guests. Your challenge is to keep the number of words you use to a minimum while assuring that each word is necessary and has an impact.

Keep descriptions short

Make sure that descriptions are short and to the point. Your customers may be short on time, so a lengthy description will only make your menu harder to read and slow down your table turnover rate. Try to describe each meal in two lines. Focus on the necessary information: its ingredients, flavor, texture, and origins.

Use adjectives to paint a picture

Adjectives are your friend as long as you use them in moderation. They help your guests imagine the texture, appearance, and taste of each meal. For instance, words like rich, creamy, smooth, and zesty paint a nice picture. You want your copy to ignite their senses.

Mention the origins of ingredients

Mention where your ingredients come from, whether they’re locally sourced or from another region. “Sun-ripened Italian tomatoes” sounds a lot more enticing than just “tomatoes”, doesn’t it?

Don’t use dollar signs

Dollar signs cause your guests to choose the least expensive options. Why? Because any currency symbol immediately makes your guests think about the pain associated with spending and inadvertently causes them to shop based on price, rather than what they really want.

The Center for Hospitality Research discovered that customers spend significantly more when a menu doesn’t include dollar signs.

You want your guests to pick the meals that stimulate their senses, regardless of price — and removing the dollar sign can help you discretely make that happen. 

Shift attention away from how much the dish costs

Building off the last point, you want to avoid placing your menu item prices in an easily scannable column. Why? Because it causes customers to focus on a meal’s price, which can result in them choosing the cheapest option. Instead, consider making your prices a little less visible and placing them beneath the dish’s description.

Use decoys

Another way to distract your guests from price is to use a decoy menu item. Place an exceptionally expensive item within close proximity of the item you really want your guests to buy. The more expensive item makes all items around it seem like a more reasonable option, increasing the probability that they are chosen (which is exactly what you wanted in the first place).


5. Create an alluring cocktail menu

If your restaurant has a liquor license, you’re going to want a solid cocktail menu. The same primary steps described above apply to profitable cocktail programs: analyze your sales data, find out which drinks are your most popular, and consolidate your menu items to the drinks that drive the most revenue.

You want to markup each cocktail’s price by 100% to 300%. That might sound like a big number, but that price increase is going to cover a lot of expenses. Between your garnishes, glasses, labor, rent, tools, and even your cocktail napkins, each drink you serve needs to be priced high enough that you can cover some operational expenses and still make a profit off of each sale.

For example

Let’s say you’re trying to determine what you should charge for a classic margarita.

Ingredients Cost
2 oz. of Tequila $2.32
¾ oz. of Triple Sec $0.99
1 oz. of lime juice $0.65
¼ of Agave nectar $0.04


Total cost to restaurant: $4.00

Price to customer: $12.00

Cost: 33%


To earn one dollar on this margarita, your restaurant needs to spend 33 cents, and that’s before you include how overhead and labor expenses. Let’s assume it takes your bartender two minutes to make the margarita. 


Other expenses Cost
Napkin $0.03
Labour  ($15.00/hour) $0.50
Rent per hour $0.18


Total cost to restaurant: ($4.00 + $0.71) = $4.71

Actual cost: ($4.71 / $12.00) = 39.25%


Once you take all of your labor and overhead expenses into account, your drink’s actual cost jumps by over 6%. Even the number of napkins you use has an impact on the profit you get from that drink. Include these expenses in your calculations from the onset, so that you can establish cocktail prices that work for your bottom line.  

Select which cocktails to feature on the menu

If you have a staffed bartender, of course, you can take special orders. However, you should keep your cocktail menu reserved for the drinks you want to put direct emphasis on. Having a menu with a lot of options is not a good thing — customers get anxious and overwhelmed when presented with too many choices and actually have a harder time making a decision they’ll be satisfied with.

Chris Tanner, head barman at London hotspot The Vault has a few other considerations for creating an amazing cocktail menu:

Stay true to your restaurant’s personality

Similar to your restaurant’s main menu and interior design, you want your cocktail menu to reflect your restaurant’s brand. Don’t be afraid to be a little quirky a unique drink menu can help you stand out from every other restaurant in your area and may aid in developing a loyal customer base. Know what you want your restaurant to represent and commit to that vision.

For example

The Vault is located underneath one of London’s oldest whiskey shops. They use their heritage location as inspiration for each of their drinks by elevating classic cocktails with subtle, modern twists. Each drink aligns with The Vault’s brand, which creates an even more cohesive experience for their guests.

Stay on top of seasons and trends

You want to give customers a reason to keep coming back time and time again. To do that, consider creating special cocktails based on the season. Take a classic cocktail like an Old Fashioned or Tom Collins, and imbue it with a seasonal twist.


Is it cold and wintery outside? Perhaps a winter-spiced Negroni will do the trick. Summery? Forget the drinks that warm you up and go with a fruity Tom Collins. The trick to keeping your cocktail menu fresh is to add a seasonal element to the classics.


For more information on creating a winning cocktail menu, read our previous post here.


You’re all set!

Now, it’s go time. The above points will enable you to design the most profitable menu possible and represent your establishment the way you want. 

You have the information, you have the tools — you even have free customizable menu templates. You’re a menu design wizard. Are you ready to build your perfect menu?