Menu Engineering 101

A proactive approach to your menu can increase profits by 5–15%.” So says Kevin Chipman, Menu Engineering Expert for Pratts Food Service. Kevin has logged more than two decades in the hospitality industry, including 10 years meeting with chefs, managers and owners of independent restaurants, hotels and bars to hone menu and marketing strategies. Here’s plenty of great advice.

Time Well Spent

“Being a working manager for many years, I understand that menu engineering could easily fall to the lower end of the priority list. But if you make it a part of your responsibilities, you’ll probably be ahead of your competition: I estimate at least 90% of independent F&B establishments don’t do this. I’ve talked to hundreds of folks, and the majority admit that A) they don’t do menu engineering for reasons such as lack of time or skill, and B) implementing it would definitely help their business.”

Gross Profit

According to Kevin, menu pricing should be based on maximizing gross profit, not minimizing food cost percentage. To calculate, subtract the total cost of ingredients from the selling price. Other relevant factors? 1) Cost of production labour, 2) level of competition, and 3) uniqueness of product. “I always recommend using a feature menu to not only test a new product but to test prices. Also, change your menu at minimum once or twice a year.

“Determine plated food costs for everything. Knowing your costs and usages allows you to use a menu engineering worksheet to determine what items need attention. You don’t want your most popular items to be the least profitable, or fall below the average profit per item.”

menu 101 kevinKevin Recommends

There are a lot of resources, but I find and Restaurant Startup & Growth magazine to be well worth the money.”

Name Your Price

More pricing tips? “The ‘right’ price is the highest one customers are happy and willing to pay. This is a trial-and-error process: Don’t assume you know! Prices must be competitive and reasonable. Then mark up each menu category independently and differently. And I suggest taking the visual emphasis off price; that’s not what you’re selling. Stagger prices—have them directly follow item names or descriptions. In either case, use a similar font, maybe even one size smaller. Remove the dollar sign. Like always, there may be exceptions.”

Easy on the Eyes

How do guests really look at the menu? There’s the “sweet spot” theory, which advocates positioning your most profitable items in the middle-right page, then upper-right, then top and bottom left, respectively. Another study asserts that customers read a menu like a book, and to design it accordingly. (

Since most customers order appetizers, salads or soups first, then entrees, it makes sense to keep that traditional sequence, says Kevin. Highlight your most profitable items with “eye magnets”: like photos, different colours or pop boxes. “Hide” less profitable items or categories by placing them next to something that jumps off the page screaming “buy me!”

Just My Typeface

“Having a font that’s too small is a mistake I see a lot,” says Kevin. “Any font and size should be clear enough for people to read not just in the daytime, but in a partly dimmed room. Size may vary depending on the font, but as a rule try not to go below 12 point. Although script fonts may be a little different or look nice, some are more difficult to read. General rule—use a neutral serif and sans-serif combination. And choose contrast: Between headers and names of dishes, or between names and descriptions—be sure fonts contrast enough.”

menu 101 photosphoto play

Kevin says:

  • Professional photos—of your own product—are best; a few hundred dollars provides several shots that can be used in many ways.
  • I tend to use stock photos, but avoid completely plated dishes and often have part of the picture coming off the page.