Menu development is the practice of creating, testing, and refining a list of dishes or beverages that you plan to serve in a restaurant or other food business. The menu development process includes several phases, including research and development, testing, costing, and operational feasibility. Menu development is related to menu design; once your menu is developed, you’ll need a strong visual layout to communicate your menu concept to customers.
In this guide, we break down how to do both menu design and development to keep your restaurant running profitably.
- Menu development should focus on creating great food that fits your concept, staff skill level, and operational constraints.
- Menu design needs to ensure your menu stands out, represents your food, and also captures your voice as a brand.
- Menu development is the foundation of your restaurant; it is important to devote time and resources to getting it right.
What Is Menu Development?
Restaurant menu development is one of the most exciting parts of a food operator’s job. When starting a restaurant, this is the opportunity to come up with food and drink concepts that will excite your customers and keep them coming back for more. As you get to curate the dining options you will be making day after day, it can be a very rewarding process.
Menu development can also happen after a restaurant has already been established. It can be the introduction of a new dish or item or even the launch of a new menu section. Basically, any creation or implementation of new products on a menu can be considered menu development.
Major Restaurant Menu Types
Menu styles can vary drastically. Below are some of the major restaurant menu types you will find in the market. Depending on your service style and the hours you operate, you may need to develop more than one menu type:
Essential Steps for Menu Development
Building out a menu takes time, care, effort, and a lot of foresight and planning. You cannot simply sit down and write down a menu. To ensure profitability, your menu needs to be based on product availability, cost, and restaurant feasibility. Below are the steps you should take when developing your menu.
Step 1: Determine Your Concept
The guiding light in your menu development is the concept of your restaurant. What kind of experience are you providing customers? Will it be fast-casual, fine dining, takeout only, or a variety of these? Also, knowing the specific cuisine type you will be offering is key to understanding what you will likely offer on the menu you present to your customers. Lastly, knowing if your menu will change often or if it will stay the same helps determine the ongoing development process. Seasonality, product availability, and your own desire to change through dishes and what you serve your customers all play a factor in this decision.
What is a “restaurant concept?” A restaurant concept is a catch-all term for the overall brand and theme of a restaurant. A restaurant’s concept includes service style, cuisine type, menu type, and layout.
Step 2: Understand Your Team & Kitchen Restraints
The next part of building out a menu is understanding your staff, their abilities, and your available equipment. For example, if you are working in a fast-casual setting, you may prioritize speed over super technical knife work. Understanding the skillset your menu plan requires of your employees is vital to your menu development.
You’ll also want to consider how much labor each dish requires on a daily or weekly basis. Lastly, knowing the physical space and equipment needed to produce the food you are proposing will dictate the kind of food you can feasibly make. You might want to put a Peking duck on your menu, but if you don’t have the equipment to properly dry the birds or an experienced staff who knows how to prepare it, you should leave it off.
Step 3: Determine Your Sourcing
The next step in creating a menu is actually understanding where you will purchase the food you are planning to cook. For instance, you cannot source local tomatoes during the winter, so a local tomato caprese salad won’t work in December. Knowing your producers, vendors, and some common knowledge of ingredient seasonality is essential for building out a menu. Some restaurants may not rely on seasonality as much, but knowing where your product will come from is still vital.
Step 4: Research Your Menu
One of the most rewarding parts of menu development is the research involved in creating the menu. Using cookbooks, blogs, shared recipes, personal experience, and other forms of research gives you an abundance of information to build your recipe. If you are trying to accomplish a very traditional dish, take the time to learn about that dish and why it was created in the first place. Your research will dictate your menu and the recipes your staff cooks, so make sure you spend time on this; putting in the effort will pay off with your staff and customers.
Step 5: Build Out Recipes
This next step is to actually build out your recipes. You should start with a base recipe. As you work on it with signature flourishes or local ingredients, take notes to ensure you have actionable instructions that your employees can later use when cooking during service. It’s also a good idea to note the cost of the ingredients you use in this step—this makes it easier to set your menu prices later.
Your recipes should make sense, offer clear instructions, and lead your cooks to produce the exact same dish you envisioned time and time again. Websites like meez are great platforms to build recipes and store them for staff.
Use our recipe development template to note your costs and processes as you develop new recipes. Just click below and enter your email address to receive a copy directly in your inbox.
Step 6: Taste!
Taste your food and be honest in your criticism. Consider the flavor, appearance, and accompaniments, as well as the prep process and service style of each dish. Tasting and modifying is a key step in menu development; it is what can make your restaurant really successful. If you do not taste and modify, it can lead to you serving bad food and a poor customer experience. Taste your recipes with a wide range of people. Tweak the flavors until they meet the expectations of your restaurant.
Step 7: Set Food Cost & Price
Each dish you serve needs to make financial sense. There would be thousands of extremely good restaurants if cost was never an issue. The cost of your food is just as important as the taste. So understanding how much a menu item will cost and the profit you will make on it is vital to operating a healthy business. Most restaurants set their menu price at 25% to 35% higher than the cost to prepare a dish.
Read our guide to food costing to learn more about managing your food cost and setting menu prices.
Step 8: Train Your Staff
Train those cooking and serving your new dishes to ensure everyone is on the same page. All of your menu and recipe work is for naught if your staff cannot execute these dishes. Hold tastings, where the whole staff tries the new menu items. This will help them understand the product they are selling to guests and the end goal of the recipes they are making.
It is such a misstep to not host an education tasting for the staff who sell or cook your food. It is akin to asking a car salesman to sell a car they have never seen in person. Knowledgeable staff leads to better menu outcomes.
Step 9: Ensure Your Menu Conveys Your Food Properly
The last big step in menu development is designing a viewable menu that showcases the items you have to sell. Your menu should be easy to read, flow together nicely, offer clear information on what is in the dish, and also offer a clear price. Other bits of information such as allergy alerts, vintages of certain alcohols, sources of specialty ingredients, and any other descriptors can be conveyed via icons or smaller type. Your menu design is how you sell your products, so take time to understand how it reads to the average guest picking it up.
Traditional vs Digital Menus
Traditional or printed menus offer diners a tangible way to view restaurant offerings. They are generally easier to design and print and can be used by all types of restaurants. However, printed menus come with the disadvantage of requiring reprinting when you implement menu changes.
A digital menu can be accessed via a QR code scan, looked up online, or displayed on screens in your restaurant space. Digital menus prevent physical paper waste and clutter and lead to better engagement for customers. They are also more dynamic; digital menus can be updated at any time and be used for upselling and promoting deals. Some restaurant point-of-sale (POS) systems have options for integrated menu displays.
Menu Development Considerations
Below are some considerations on what you should look for when developing menus.
Dietary restrictions affect many people in many different ways. Leading vegetarian and vegan lifestyles are choice-based restrictions. Having Celiac disease or needing to eat low-cholesterol foods is health-related. Either way, your menu should try to be as accessible as you can make it within the concept you are trying to pursue. Having different options for different diners can bring in more business and attract regulars if they feel comfortable eating at your establishment
If you are planning to cook seasonally, then establishing relationships with local farmers and producers is vital. Also, understanding how crops related to your menu are sourced cannot only help you serve the best product but also understand the best times of year for the price of said ingredients. As seasons change, the flavor and cost of different foods do too. Knowing how changes affect your ingredients is an advantage.
As mentioned above, the supply chain plays a key role in what you offer at your restaurant and how you build out a menu. One of the worst experiences for a guest is ordering an item only to find out it is not available. Understand the supply chain of your ingredients, and make sure staple menu items consist of ingredients that have healthy supply chains.
The way you serve your food is just as important as how your food is made. Knowing this, you can build out a service model that highlights your menu items. Maybe you want to make guacamole tableside, showing the freshness of ingredients and the skill of your staff. Or, you may want to plate a sauce tableside in order for the flavor impact to be the best it can be. All of this comes into planning a service style that supports your food and shows it in the best light possible.
Fixed Items vs Specials
Having a base menu that customers rely on for quality food is key to building up a customer base. This also means that you should have some items that are consistent and can be ordered throughout the year if possible. But if you want to excite customers, consider spaces for specials that you can integrate within your menu. Specials are a way for chefs to be creative, and they excite customers, too. Leaving space for a special might be just as important as the strength of your fixed menu items.
Key Menu Design Strategies
In order to design your menu, you need to have some guiding strategies that allow you to dictate how customers will perceive your menu. Use these strategies below in order to design the best possible menu for your restaurant.
Focus on Eye Movement
A big part of menu design is drawing your customers into the spaces you most want them to be visually locked into. This could be a section of key menu items or a space that is meant to start the diner off with smaller plates to add more to the bill total. Use templates and designs that focus on certain spaces and put the items you want to sell more of there. Be sure to check out our restaurant menu template guide to find some free-to-use templates for your menu.
Balance With White Space
Using white space can make menu items easier to read, making a decision faster for your guests. Be sure not to cram a menu with a bunch of words. Rather, space it out and give your guests the ease of being able to read individual items clearly. This makes a difference and makes your menu more appealing.
Focus on Key Words & Be Concise
Being able to describe your dish in a concise manner is paramount to selling that dish to your customers. Dish descriptors should tell your diners what it is they will be receiving, but not much more. Rambling descriptions can clutter a menu and leave diners feeling lost. Be concise and only put what is necessary.
Use Color & Photos Appropriately
Color and photos can have a huge impact on your guest’s decision-making when they are choosing their meal. Do research on what moods certain colors can evoke in order to give your customers preset feelings when they view your menu. If you are going to use photos, use high-quality photos that truly represent your food so a customer gets what they have seen pictured. Visually stimulating menus draw your customers in and make decision-making more enjoyable.
Focus on Digital Menus as Well
It is important to have just as much focus on your digital menu as you do on your physical one. For many looking up your restaurant, your digital menu may be the only point of contact they have before dining in your establishment. Be sure the layout of your digital menu is concise, easy to read, and works well on smartphones and laptops. Use our digital menu template guide for more ideas.
Consider a Consultant
If you are new to the restaurant space, consider outside resources to help jump-start the menu development process. A consultant is someone with industry experience and knowledge who can help you create a menu offering that attracts customers and makes you money. Look for someone with a proven track record of successful restaurant or food ventures, specifically in the menu development and implementation space.
Build Solid Menu Planning Processes
In order to execute your food in a restaurant, you need to build out processes for your staff. This includes prep lists, scheduling, staff training, prep time windows, staff meetings, and coaching sessions. All of these relate to training your staff on how to execute your menu, so ensure the proper tools are in place for you to do so.
Tools for Menu Development & Design
If menu development feels overwhelming, there are several tools that can help you refine your vision. From classes to books, digital design tools, or getting support from your vendors, these are our top recommendations when you need a little more help in the menu development department.
If you want to learn even more about menu design—maybe even get a start at calling yourself a menu engineer—there are some great online courses you can take. Some courses, like the eCornell course below, can be pricey, but others are completely free.
- eCornell Menu Design and Engineering Course
- Udemy Menu Optimization for Restaurants Course
- Toast Menu Engineering Course
If you have the time to read some lengthier guides, these are some of our favorite books about recipe and menu development. Most of these books offer a deeper look at how flavors work together, while others are more brass-tacks recipe writing guides.
- The Flavor Bible: Compiled from the work of several amazing chefs, this book takes a deep dive into flavor development. Great when you need some inspiration.
- On Food and Cooking: This is the definitive book for understanding how food works. If you want a crash course in the science and history of food, this is your book.
- Culinary Artistry: Further expanding on The Flavor Bible, this book digs deeper into dish construction and how to build a menu.
- The Complete Recipe Writing Guide: A guide on not only writing recipes but also taking into account nutrition and how to present them.
Menu Design Apps
If you’ve developed a menu but are stumped at designing your menu layout, try these menu design tools. They range from free to around $25 per month and include additional functions like QR code generation and stock images to amp up your menus.
- Canva (For Free Restaurant Menu Maker): A free graphic design app that you can use for menus, Instagram posts, and much more. A must-have for any graphic design needs.
- MustHaveMenus.com: A site for menu templates that cover all business types in the restaurant industry.
- Adobe Menu Maker: Adobe is a very popular menu template maker in the industry, and it comes with preset styles for you to choose from and a suite of tools to make the menu your own.
Most mainline restaurant distributors like Sysco and US Foods offer menu development and design resources. Just ask your sales representative about these tools when you place your next order. Other vendors, like your POS system provider, typically offer some classes or detailed training courses that show you how to leverage the reporting capabilities of your POS to inform menu development. Check with your POS partner to see what resources they offer.
Restaurant Menu Design & Development Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
These are some of the most common questions we get about the menu development process.
Menu development planning and design is the most important product-facing task you will do as a restaurant operator. In this portion of managing, you are building the menu in a way that supports your staff and offers your guests an incredible experience. A great menu makes customers come back time and time again. So, offer great, well-tested food that delights your diners. And be sure to represent that delicious food in a menu that captures their attention as they order. A great menu is one that takes some work but is also one that pays off for both staff and guests alike.