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How to Decide If Your Menu Needs Updating

Donald BurnsAuthor

If there's one constant in the universe, it's change. In the restaurant industry, things are constantly shifting and evolving. And to keep your restaurant afloat, you need to always be adapting.

One area of your business you should regularly check in on is your restaurant menu. You might think, "Why would I want to change my menu? It's served my business well. Guests love the selections. And, best of all, we're making money."

That all might be true, but there's always room for growth – and opportunities to bring in more revenue and cut down costs.


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Should You Update Your Restaurant Menu?

Restaurateurs have infamously long lists of to-dos, and menu updates might fall to the wayside once in a while. But waiting to take action until absolutely necessary could hurt your business's performance.

Here are three compelling reasons why you should update your menu now.

1. Your Guests' Tastes Are Changing

Your guests' palates are ever-changing. And if you aren't willing to adapt and listen to what your guests want, they might find what they're looking for at another restaurant. If nothing else, you should do some research and see what's hot and in demand out there.

The biggest advantage that an independent restaurant has is its ability to make changes quickly. The big chain restaurants might like a trendy new flavor (think Sriracha), and within a year, it’s mainstream.

Once a trend has hit your really big chains, it’s usually pretty played out (think Sriracha Shrimp at Applebee’s). Now, there might be some flavor profiles like Sriracha that your guests crave, you’ll just need to think a little outside the box.

There are evolutionary restaurants and revolutionary ones. The difference is the speed at which they adapt. Evolutionary restaurants adapt quickly and they can stay a few steps ahead of the competition. Revolutionary restaurants are the ones that set the treads and get copied by evolutionary restaurants.

Which would you rather be?

2. Food Pricing is Changing

We know that food prices go up and most restaurants adjust for that by raising prices.

But what do you do when the economy has a deflation? You might run into some trouble.

The problem is when you notice you're getting a much lower price on something in your restaurant and you don’t “readjust” and pass the market correction along to the guest. Don’t think they don’t notice either.

The challenge for restaurants today is that certain customers, like millennials, see those prices at the store and think that they could make dinner at home for cheaper. If you know you're getting a better price on something, why not pass that along to your guests and be open about it?

On the other end, there are some items that have become so high-priced due to demand (think chicken wings) that small restaurants might find it hard to add those items to their menu and make a profit. There are some that even take a loss to offer high-demand items like those.

First, remember that your menu is a balance of profitable and popular menu items. But there comes a time when the market just makes it a bad move to keep up with the restaurant down the street that specializes in chicken wings and can buy them at a much lower price than you. Sometimes you just have to know when to walk away.

Remember, you can be evolutionary or revolutionary.

Updating your menu also means looking at your beverage menu as well. You need to dig deep and conduct a real analysis to see how you’re priced in your market. Is everything priced right? Anything too high? Anything too low? When looking at your menu prices compared to your competition, you want to approach them like you're a member of the CSI Forensic Team. Dig deep to get to the truth.

3. Labor Is Changing

Staffing is an ongoing challenge for restaurant owners and operators.

With more and more restaurants opening, the labor pool is having trouble keeping pace to fulfill demand. On top of that, add the increasing demand for higher wages, and you have the perfect storm rolling into our industry. Many restaurants will need to rethink their menus and operations if they want to stay in game.

Mega-restaurants (200+ seats) and mega-menus (4+ pages) are becoming less common and more of an anomaly. If your labor percent is creeping up (especially in the kitchen), this could be the most compelling reason you need to update you menu now.

Want to Update Your Menu? Here's What You Can Do.

1. Look at the number of menu items that come off each station in your kitchen.

Is any one station getting really hammered? Having too many items come off one station can lead to quality and time issues with the food.

2. Dump the menu dogs.

If you've done a menu engineering exercise and understand where each menu item falls in stratification (star, plowhorse, puzzle, or dog), then take the dogs off and don't replace them.

Don't feel compelled to keep your menu the same size. Dogs on your menu are in that category because they are not popular and they do not contribute to profitability. Keeping a menu item around that doesn't sell or really do anything is like paying a person to stand in the corner and do nothing.

3. Hire better talent.

Now this might sound counterintuitive, but paying more for someone with better skills actually reduces labor and payroll costs in the long game.

A line cook who is worth $17 an hour is far most cost effective than two checked out college kids who make $11 per hour because you need two of them to be able to produce the same work load as the aforementioned all star.

4. Examine each item in your menu for cross utilization. 

Every item on your menu needs to be used in as many menu items as possible. Sure, you love Foie Gras, but if it's only used on the menu as an appetizer – and given the fact that it's a dog on the menu engineering spreadsheet – it’s time to take it off the regular menu.

You can still bring it in for a limited time or for a special prix fixe menu, where you can balance the item cost out with price of the special menu.

5. Re-evaluate your equipment.

Re-evaluating your equipment might be a great option if your kitchen is especially in need of some new tools. There have been come amazing advances in cooking technology that can increase efficiency of your kitchen line.

A chef at a restaurant in Durango, Colorado recently replaced a piece of outdated equipment on his line with a TurboChef oven and found that he only needed one cook to work that station instead of two. He simultaneously increased the amount of items that station could produce, reduced ticket times, and reduced labor.

That's a major win for a small restaurant with less than 60 seats where ticket times can help or hurt when you need to turn tables. He's added another TurboChef oven to his line and has seen an increase in sales of those item that come off that station.

Updating Your Restaurant Menu

Times are changing in the restaurant industry, and updating your menu is the perfect place to start.

The biggest obstacle most will have to overcome is themselves. The menu can become very personal to chefs and restaurant owners. Taking your restaurant and your menu to the next level does require a transcendence of the self – that means your ego.

Your menu is a marketing and profitability tool. Think about it like this: There is the menu you want, there is the menu your guests want, and somewhere in between is the menu you need to stay in the game.

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