The Science of Menu Writing: Keys To Unlocking Sales

Savvy operators can attract customers, boost sales with enticing menu descriptions. 


There’s an old adage that people eat with their eyes. Not many would argue that point, but restaurants can’t display every menu item to entice customers. So how does one best paint a picture that makes food offerings irresistible? Well-written menu offerings are key to drawing customers to your restaurant and not the one across the street.


It’s a matter of science, says Brian Wansink, a professor and director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab. In a six-week field experiment involving 140 people, descriptive menu labels such as “Grandma’s Zucchini Cookies” and “succulent Italian seafood filet” increased sales by 27 percent and “improved attitudes towards the food, attitudes towards the restaurant and intentions towards repatronage.”


Wansink says the name of a menu item is an important criterion for decision-making. But by providing additional cues, such as descriptive labels, restaurateurs enhance the perceived attractiveness of a menu item. There are a variety of ways to generate descriptive labels, he says, including geographic labels (Cajun and Italian), nostalgia (homestyle) and sensory (tender or satin). A mix of these can be particularly effective, he says.


Many experts point out that including recognizable brand names on menus can also help to shape the consumers' ordering decisions.


However, Wansink warns that restaurants risk alienating customers if a menu item does not meet the expectations of a descriptive label. In other words, don’t describe something as succulent if it’s not.


Dan Jurafsky, a computational linguist at Stanford, points out that words like “exotic” used to describe a menu item can command a higher price because they appeal to more affluent and adventure-seeking diners. If targeting customers at lower price point restaurants, use personalized words like “you,” “diner’s choice” and “have it your way,” he says.  High-end restaurants would do well to shift their menus’ focus to the chefs with descriptors such as “chef’s special” and “chef’s selection,” he adds.


Of course, menu descriptions have evolved over the years, and not always for the better. Not long ago, there was a growing trend among restaurants, particularly upscale restaurants, to overly explain every menu item and ingredient in a dish. That was compounded by an accompanying list of sourced ingredients from farms and purveyors. Consultant Gregg Rapp, a menu engineer, says he spends a great deal of time observing customers and many will spend about 90 seconds looking at a menu. Long menu descriptors may needlessly slow down the ordering process, he says.


“Certainly, foodies will study a menu for much longer because they’re at a restaurant seeking an experience,” says Rapp. “But most spend very little time looking at a menu, which means menu descriptions must be written precisely to help them make the best decision quickly. Don’t include mentions of farmers and suppliers in descriptions, he says. “Put them on your website or on the back of the menu,” says Rapp, “or even do something like what the Burgerville restaurant concept does — hang posters of your purveyors throughout the restaurant.”


In reaction to the over-explanation trend, some restaurants have recently begun to offer only a minimalist description of menu items. Consider Aska, a restaurant in Brooklyn, New York, which described one fish dish on its menu as Pike, Egg Yolk, Yarrow. That’s not a lot of information for a customer to make an informed decision. And what is yarrow? Too little information requires customers to discuss menu items with servers, which slows down the ordering process. This point provoked Pete Wells, the restaurant critic for The New York Times, to say, “Menus shouldn’t need explanation. Menus should be the explanation. That’s the point of writing things down.”


Rapp says too many restaurants today are using “lazy descriptors” with nothing more than a list of ingredients. Creating a well-written descriptor that paints a picture makes the price of the menu item psychologically go down while the value goes up. “In days past the aim of menu writers was to direct customers to the most expensive item on the menu. The better goal, however, is to describe a menu item so well that it makes customers want to come back to the restaurant to order it again,” he says. “It’s all about generating repeat customers.”


Recognizable name brands can go a long way toward making guests feel at home. They send a subtle message that the restaurant uses the same product brand the customer serves at home. As a result, the guests trust the product, which helps them trust the restaurant.


In a cutthroat industry where profit margins are razor thin, the trick is to create mouth-watering descriptors which make menu items irresistible while driving profits, says Rapp “If your competitor’s menu simply lists Cobb Salad, while yours says Cobb Salad featuring smoky Black Forest Ham, succulent chicken breast, tangy Roquefort cheese and creamy California avocado, which restaurant do you think will sell more Cobb salads?”


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