When guests are searching for your food online, a digital menu that tries to be all things to all people is likely to be less effective than one that has been designed from a digital-first perspective.
Gordon Ramsey, the acclaimed Michelin star chef and TV celebrity known best for “Hell's Kitchen” is also one that believes in simplicity. On his visit to Leone restaurant in Montclair, New Jersey, it was clear how menu complexity caused challenges for the restaurant’s guests and the team members servicing them. This was a business that only operated in an on-premises context! In today's multi-channel, digitally oriented restaurant business model, it has never been more important to have simplicity front and center of menu design.
At a recent OnTrends concept conference in Tampa, Florida, the CEO of Targetable, Andrew Nash, told the audience, "If TGI Friday's or a restaurant like them were to split their menu into 10 separate virtual brand menus, their off-premises volume would likely be higher than by keeping them together." We agree and believe that large menus have lost their relevance in today’s restaurant economy. Let’s explore the reasons why.
Large menus create search fatigue in a time-poor and attention-deficit plagued society. Many guests will engage with restaurants for the first time through a third-party marketplace like DoorDash or UberEats. A large menu online can be divided up into categories, but the more scrolling and button-pushing involved to search a menu, the more friction the user will experience. When the handheld device searching the food is handed around the hungry family to select their evening's meal, a slow and laborious ordering process will hasten choice, limit add-on potential and lengthen the period of hunger, and, as a result, hangriness. A restaurant’s name and simple, easy to navigate and view menu will help the guest find the food they want faster.
Digital restaurant brand names are important to enhance third-party search optimization. Digital platforms can certainly help focus user review of menus by reminding consumers of what they ordered last time, or by highlighting the most popular dishes. But a digital interface struggles to represent the variety of choice available on a tiny smartphone screen.
When a consumer clicks on a restaurant's name for the first time, they have no idea whether that restaurant has 20 items or 120 items on its menu. They don't know how long selecting their meal will take, and if it becomes too laborious a task, they just might choose another restaurant. It is just a few clicks away, after all. It's a lot easier to change restaurants digitally compared to an on-premises setting. This is exactly why Targetable’s Nash recommends many virtual brands with small menus instead of one brand with a large menu. These virtual brands also keep the name of the restaurant closer to the menu items therein.
Virtual brands can be very clear on what they represent and can easily have their core menu be represented through a handful of items. Sides, add-ons and beverages can be consistent across all the menus that the restaurant supports.
Large menus cause operational complexity in an omni-channel ordering environment. “Less is more” is a phrase we're all familiar with; it was made famous by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, an architect trying to make buildings simpler. So why do restaurateurs keep their menus so complex? And what does this mean for the cooking staff having to train, learn and execute consistently across a large menu during the worst labor crisis in a generation? Nothing but difficulty — and in more cases than not, an inferior experience for everyone involved.
Large menus dilute brand identities. Guests want a clear understanding of a restaurant's authentic brand story and what that restaurant offers. Consumers demand improved quality of ingredients, and that those ingredients are sourced in a means that matches what is important to them — be it value, agricultural practices, sourcing location or clean labels. Guests want restaurants to tell them about who they are and why they serve what they serve — not just information on calories or allergens. This information is critical to bringing voice to a restaurant's identity, and it can be achieved through its menu, but only if the menu is focused.
Marketeers will often talk about the importance of “white space” — the gaps on a poster, website or a billboard that are important to ensure the key messages stand out. The same is true on a menu. If a menu is crammed full of ink — or pixelated sentences in the digital world — the potential for losing a guest’s attention and engagement goes up. In an off-premises context, this has never been more important. Encouraging guests to return through a first-party channel is an important step toward off-premises channel profitability. Guests who remember the platform they ordered from but not the restaurant who fulfilled their order will never shift their allegiance to a first-party ordering experience.
Inflation and labor shortages are forcing restaurants to reduce the size of menus. The labor shortage and supply chain challenges have forced restaurants to trim their menus, and many are finding focused menus an easier and more profitable way to operate.
Coffee futures are up more than 82%, with wheat up by 26% and sugar up 24% at time of writing. Reducing waste and utilizing the flexibility of digital menus will help restaurants adapt their menu to this difficult environment. Reducing the amount of core items that can then be customized by the guest can help restaurants manage. It also supports efforts to drive cost efficiencies through the restaurant's supply chain — focusing on larger orders of fewer ingredients.
With the rise of off-premises channels, virtual brands and an informed and demanding customer base, restaurants must re-think their menu design strategy. Reducing the core menu clarifies a restaurant’s identity, smooths operations and reduces costs. Personalization and customization remain a central theme and provide the variability that guests seek. For those restaurants ready to offer more than just a core menu, virtual brands can support reach and frequency. Restaurants can design a brand themselves by identifying where existing ingredients mesh nicely together or work with virtual brand developers who can help determine the right options. The digital menu is now just a few inches long — and what sits on that menu must make a bigger and better impact than through the pure volume of items alone.
Meredith Sandland and Carl Orsbourn are co-authors of “Delivering the Digital Restaurant: Your Roadmap to the Future of Food.” After each spent 20-plus years in corporate strategy and retail food, Meredith and Carl each concluded that food in America was changing. They left their corporate jobs in search of innovation that would transform the restaurant industry. Ghost kitchens, virtual brands, digital marketing, the gig economy and lean operations are at the heart of the future they envision. For more information, visit DeliveringtheDigitalRestaurant.com or email [email protected]