To the patron holding it, a restaurant menu is full of possibilities. The few minutes of examining it are an important part of dining ritual. It leads the customer toward his or her eventual selection, and it reveals something about the restaurant’s identity. To a restaurateur, however, the menu is a business proposal, a carefully crafted document designed to meet demand and satisfy the bottom line. And what ends up on the menu can’t exceed the kitchen’s capacity to turn it out. Here’s a window into how menus work.
WHERE THE EYE LANDS
On average, expect food to be marked up by 30% in a casual restaurant and 40% in a high-end eatery to cover the costs of product, labor and overhead. Some menu items are going to net a higher return than others, including side dishes at a steak house, which cost less than the cuts of beef they accompany. Open the menu and notice where your eye lands. On a well-designed page, “the eyes are going to be guided to those items that are more profitable,” says Stan Harris, president and CEO of the Louisiana Restaurant Association. “Restaurants have to make careful decisions, and more of them are using big data to determine the menu mix and product mix. To stay in business, you’ve got to understand your cost structure.”
Despite the affinity for seafood in south Louisiana, Baton Rouge diners are known for gravitating toward beef, say numerous restaurateurs. Casual eateries feature less expensive cuts while higher-end eateries serve premium cuts with a long list of optional toppings or sauces. “Customers in Baton Rouge have to have a filet,” says Ruffino’s Executive Chef Peter Sclafani. “They like their meat tender. You’re not going to find a New York strip in this town.” Ruffino’s, like other fine dining restaurants in Baton Rouge, serves filets and ribeyes.
An expansive menu done right is a way to get lots of people through the door, and keep them coming back. “For us, the business is built around a large target market, from younger diners on a date night to families to older customers, so the menu needs to be diverse enough to meet a broad customer base,” says Emelie Kantrow Alton, co-owner of Bistro Byronz. The veteran Government Street restaurant maintained its same menu when it opened a second location in Willow Grove earlier this year. To fight waste, Alton says it’s important for a restaurant to find multiple uses for the same product. For example, beef roast is used in Byronz’s pot roast Creole as well in its “debris” sandwich. Similarly, flat iron steak is used in steak frites and in the steak frites salad.
Alcoholic beverages are marked up at a higher rate than food in a restaurant, helping to balance the cost of the average dish. The standard markup for a bottle of wine is about three times the cost of retail, says Gabe Daigle, sales rep for Mystic Wines. “That’s definitely true if you’re a fan of something like Silver Oak, but if you’re interested in something that’s off the beaten path, there’s good value,” Daigle says. “Ask the sommelier what’s good. There’s always value within the list.”