Menu engineering is the art of increasing your average check by getting customers to subconsciously order higher-profit items, and more of them. For those unfamiliar with this practice, it’s not so much trickery as it is strategy. Just a few quick fixes could result in dramatic revenue lifts, without any changes in kitchen operations or paid marketing. 

Menu engineering is not a new science, either. Other industries have used subtle tactics to control our focus and purchasing behavior for years.

“I started by studying the newspaper industry. They know how you read so they will adjust their layout,” said Gregg Rapp, a menu engineer who’s been working with restaurant and hospitality giants such as Disneyland, Taco Bell and Wolfgang Puck, in addition to countless independent eateries, for the past 37 years. “Same with grocery stores. They’re [way] ahead of the restaurant industry. They know where people’s eyes go.”

Rapp’s process is relatively simple, though his methodologies vary widely based on the restaurant’s business needs, the teams involved and state of its menu. 

“We hold what I call a ‘state of the menu’ meeting, where we take a look at the numbers: the food costs and the sales mix. We’re looking for high-profit, high sales items.”

Rapp alludes to a 2x2 matrix in which to categorize items, a practice widely used in menu engineering. At the end of the day, you want to promote your profitable items that are already selling well, consider phasing out non-profitable items that don’t sell well, and adjust those in between. 

“We bring in the art director, the operations team, the marketing team, and we pull apart the menu and piece it back together,” Rapp said. But the key, he noted, is collaboration.

“The restaurant does the menu whispering. They have control of the menu and make the final decisions based on what they know about the restaurant.”

Beyond the menu’s reconstruction, however, is implementation, and training staff in new upsell practices to complement the menu’s promoted items. Rapp likes to go a step further and create a ‘backstory book’ for each item.

“[A backstory book] gives servers some very helpful info to describe the items to guests,” Rapp said. “It empowers them to talk about the history behind each item, why it’s on the menu, where the ingredients come from.”

Rapp even uses eye-tracking classes to monitor menu ‘hot spots’ where customers devote more of their attention. These findings can isolate places where the menu is shining—where you want the customers’ eyes to go—as well as where opportunity for improvement exists.

“If someone can’t understand something, they’ll focus their eyes on that section longer,” Rapp said. “You need to make the decision process quick. As soon as someone orders an entrée, they’ll order something else as well. Help them do that.”

But Rapp also warns against over-engineering menus. There is certainly such a thing as pushing customers too far.

“Don’t oversell just the most expensive item,” Rapp said. “The most important thing is to bring a customer back…overselling people won’t get them to return.”

Rapp also shared a few more quick tips on menu engineering:

Drop the dollar sign.

Taking the ‘$’ symbol off the menu ‘softens’ your prices, making customers feel at ease ordering more expensive items and more items in general. Additionally, it’s better to list the prices after the item descriptions, rather than in a vertical column all the way down the page. The latter leads to customers looking at prices first and the items second, whereas you really want it to be the other way around. 

Use callouts.

Boxes around certain items or small groups of items can go a long way in drawing attention. The same principle applies to icons that note ‘house favorites’ or ‘signature dishes.’ 

Maximize menu real estate.

Eyeballs naturally gravitate toward the tops of pages, as well as the first item in each menu section. Structure your menu accordingly, so that you’re promoting your star dishes in high-traffic areas while keeping other options in the less valuable locations. 

Descriptions are everything.

The more you can personify an item, the better its customer allure will be. You certainly won’t be able to fit a long-winded description about every item on your menu, but experimenting with 1-2 signature dishes may help, as well as creating a backstory book for your staff to share when customers ask about anything else.