How to Come Up With New Restaurant Menu Ideas

Need new restaurant menu ideas? Here's the process so that you'll roll them out right in your restaurant.

Adding something new to your restaurant's menu? That might not be such a good idea.

The process of coming up with new restaurant menu ideas reminds me a bit of picking teams on the elementary school yard. No matter how fair and diligent you try to be, some kids are going to feel left out.

For restaurants, those left-out kids are menu items.

Every here and there, your menu may very well need a refresher. Some items lose their popularity and become less profitable to keep around. Food trends in your restaurant's concept or type of cuisine may call for you to add something new. However, when you're looking to change things up for the sake of changing things up, it might actually be harmful to your business in the long run.

As you progress through this process, I ask that you keep something in mind: there are always “outliers” or exceptions to the rule. If your restaurant is one of those exceptions, that’s fine. Certain restaurants need big menus - but most don’t!

When you and your staff are bouncing around new restaurant menu ideas, keep these ideas in mind.

Menu Theme is Everything

Every restaurant menu needs a theme.

Let's take a look at the food truck revolution. Wouldn't you agree that the most successful food trucks do one thing really well? Grilled Cheese Truck, Lobster Roll Truck, BBQ Truck, Fish Taco Truck, you name it. The more diverse food trucks may have great names and branding, but they are not specialization in something. If you have a truck that serves a Grilled Cheese, Burger, Taco, Lobster Roll, and BBQ Pork Sandwich, why would you eat there instead of the truck that only serves one of those items!

Besides lower cost and the obvious simplicity to operate, smaller more focused menus let people know exactly what to expect.

Now, the tradeoff here is that certain people will not want what you are serving the more specific you get, but that is good! I tell my clients this all the time: the more specific your marketing, the more you will attract people who want what you have.

Conversely, it will also tell people who don’t want what you have to stay as far away as possible.

So the first step in coming up with new restaurant menu ideas or menu offerings is first to make sure your menu has a laser-focused theme.

If you're wondering how your restaurant can establish a theme, I can’t think of two better examples than In-N-Out or Chick-Fil-A. They both have demonstrated laser focus in their themes, especially as consumers are seeking more examples “craftsman” and “artisan” flavors in food than ever before. These restaurants know their menu and what their customers want from their menu.

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Keep a Master List of Ideas

Surround yourself with inspiration all day, every day, everywhere you go, and in everything that you do.

You should always be open to inspiration when it comes your way. Pay close attention to everything food related. Here's what I do to stay in tune with what's new.

  • I receive subscriptions to 4-5 consumer food magazines (and 4-5 industry magazines) per month.
  • I am always watching Food Network.
  • I pay attention to new restaurants, look at their menus, and read their reviews to see what people like and don’t like.

This keeps the ideas flowing at rate faster then I could ever put them on menus, so I keep a master list of ideas.

Before I kept this list, I would sit down to write a menu, but my mind would be blank - literally nothing. Now when I sit down to write a menu, I open up my list and have more restaurant menu ideas than I could ever use.

Menu Engineering Worksheet
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Menu Engineering Worksheet

Use this worksheet to determine which items on your menu are your strongest performers and which ones are costing you the most.

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Create A Menu Formula

Now, with all these ideas and a laser focused theme, there needs to be a standard formula for your menu, otherwise it gets out of control fast.

Here is what I mean - ask yourself the following questions when formulating restaurant menu ideas. This will give you context of what categories you want to include in your menu to line up with your theme. For example:

  • How many menu items do you have in total?
  • How many starters?
    •  How many are shareable?
    • How many are more individual?
    • How many are salads, soups, vegetarian?
  • How many entrees?
    • How many categories (salads, pasta, protein, etc…)
  • How many proteins do you want to inventory?
  • How many international dishes will there be?
  • How many deserts?
    • How many are chocolate, ice cream/sorbet based, fruit-based?
    • How many are you going to make yourself vs. buy?

The list can go on and on, but this is just a few questions to get you thinking. Once you have a general idea on your restaurant's menu theme and items, build your menu with a designer.

Fill in the Blanks

This is where the fun begins, but this is also the hardest part.

It’s through this process of filling in the blanks when it will show if you didn't spend enough time on creating that focus.

In the previous section, you designated how many spaces will need to be filled on your menu. Now, you're filling those blanks and deciding what the new restaurant menu ideas are going to be.

The first thing I do is insert the standard plates that I know I must include. Every restaurant has those dishes that must stay on the menu and can never change.

After you play your favorites, look at your open spots. Then look at your list of remain menu item ideas. Simply start filling in the rest of the spots with your menu ideas based on how related they are to the theme of your menu.

Edit, Combine, Refine

Not everything will fit into your menu perfectly, so what I recommend you do is start adapting ideas to fit your format, rather than formatting to fit your ideas. To begin, I establish the format before looking at my ideas. Then, I'll either edit, combine, or refine.

Edit

Say you need a steak dish on your menu, but you also had an idea for a pork dish on your list. You can usually adapt the dish to fit your needs. Why not offer the dish and offer the meat as a choice (like eggplant and chicken parmesan)?

Combine

I also love combining dishes from my giant list of restaurant menu ideas. If you need a braised dish and a pasta dish, these can often be combined into one dish. Strive to create a new flavor that is as unique as your restaurant.

Refine

Once you create your menu by narrowing down your potential new items, make sure you refine it. It has to fit your restaurant's theme and perfectly fill in the blank space on your menu that was made for no other item.

The Side Effects of a Poor Menu Creation Process

The format of your menu can be flexible, but for the most part, your customers have expectations. If you stray too far, your new menu can confuse your guests. Your format should not compromise your menu's focus.

Think of this like a seeing a puppy a grow. When you see your puppy everyday, you don’t notice its growth. But when you leave town for a few weeks and come back, the puppy is twice the size and you notice it.

This often happens to restaurants. The menu format changes a little bit each year, but then five years later, you aren't the same restaurant that your customers loved. You don’t see it immediately because the change is subtle, but your customers who only visit occasionally will notice the change.

Soon, you’re not as busy as you were and you can’t figure out why.

Avoid this and stick to your theme.

I also recommend that you don't create heavy-duty restauranr menus that have huge production expenses, at least not right off the bat. Otherwise, you can't re-print easily - and it’s unlikely you will get things right the first time.

Either way, I encourage creating menus that are easy to edit and re-print.

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