Building a menu for your restaurant is no easy feat. It takes planning, careful consideration, and (more often than not) the work of a professional. If you’re dead set on building a menu all on your lonesome, join us! We have a super simple guide to building a menu with or without the help of professionals.
Building a Restaurant Menu
Step 1: Build a List (By Category)
This is where all menus need to start - before you can set pricing and build a pretty menu, you need to have menu items. And, crucially, you need them organized. This allows you to split things up into specific categories, such as:
And, perhaps more importantly, this organization allows you to figure out what’s most important - our next step. We’ll cover that shortly, but first, let’s briefly talk about menu items. You need to know how much each item costs you to produce (including labor), and you need to know what sells well.
If you’re just getting started, chances are this will be a bit of a challenge at first, but it doesn’t need to be - check out our guides to creating a perfect online menu, modern menu design features, menu trends, and more on our blog.
Step 2: Establish Priority
Next is setting your priority, as we mentioned above. By this, we mean you need to know what to highlight.
Menu items that sell very well or have high margins should be featured top-and-center, as they’re more likely to catch a customer's eye. Additionally, it’s good practice to think about how you read a menu when sitting down at a new restaurant. Do your eyes naturally go to the top or to the large APPETIZER bar along the side?
Use that knowledge! Putting menu items where they can be seen quickly is a great way to highlight the things you want customers to order and can make this next section a bit simpler.
Step 3: Set Your Prices
This is arguably the most challenging part of building a restaurant menu. Math (and, by extension, pricing) is rarely a beloved activity - but it is necessary. You’ll need to know your restaurant food cost percentage, along with labor, rent, and any other costs you may incur.
This is made quite a bit easier if you’re working from an old menu - you can import the prices and update them according to inflation by a small amount. But if you’re brand new to pricing, you’ll want to check out the link above. It’ll guide you through how to figure out the cost of your menu items and make this process far more straightforward.
It’s also worth noting that simply raising prices without acknowledging it can be offputting for customers. They're likely to be upset if they regularly pay $10 for that burger that’s suddenly $15-20. But there’s a way around this - a simple disclaimer.
Just say something along the lines of:
- We take pride in paying our staff a living wage; __% of all menu items go directly to our team.
- These small increases in price come with a significant benefit - we now offer top-tier medical insurance to all staff.
- Local, organic food comes at an increasing cost - we thank you for understanding our slight rise in pricing to accommodate top-tier meals and eco-friendly practices.
Believe it or not, most customers can and will understand this. In fact, it can help humanize your staff, which is essential for your business’s well-being and that of your team.
Step 4: Design
This is where different operators will split paths. Some prefer to do things on their own, and that’s okay. But if you want things done the first time (correctly), hiring professionals is the way to go. Let’s take a look.
When hiring professionals, you can go one of two paths:
- Hire a full-service marketing agency.
This has many benefits, such as a photography/videography team, graphic designers, and more - but it’s usually more expensive.
- Hire an independent food photographer and graphic designer.
The second option is great for those who want specific, short-term work done now. Freelancers are an excellent choice as they can generally complete smaller projects much faster than a whole team might, though they’ll have fewer resources.
On Your Own:
If you want to do things on your own, you absolutely can - though it’ll be pretty spendy. You’ll need some specialized software and the knowledge of how to use it, which can be… difficult. And then there’s the need for top-notch food photos, which may or may not pose an issue for you, depending on your skills.
Using the Adobe Suite (InDesign and/or Illustrator, specifically) is the best option if you have the technical know-how, though Canva and similar services can make the process quite simple and even offer templates to use.
Skip below for tips on designing a menu on your own, or read this excellent article from CloudKitchens.
What to Consider When Designing:
You need to keep three things in mind when designing a restaurant menu:
This is obvious - don’t use clashing colors or extremely bright/obtrusive color schemes. If you can’t easily read the menu (or it hurts your eyes), start again. Check out this article from Chron on how restaurant color schemes can affect your business.
Next is layout, which is relatively simple - keep the menu as small as possible while remembering that people naturally read from the middle of the page, only then going from left to right (AKA the Golden Triangle).
Additionally, this refers to how you place your menu item names, descriptions, and prices.
Avoid placing prices in a row (this makes it easier to compare them and find the cheapest option), and try to avoid using dollar signs ($) when possible; a 2009 study from Cornell found that dollar signs on menus actually reduce overall spending from customers.
- Design Elements
As for text items, this is a broad category.
This can refer to items such as fancy squiggles and elements that feel like a necessity but clog up the reading experience (stuff like this).
If you clicked the link, you’d find a google search that shows “bad restaurant menus.” While not all of them are genuinely terrible, things like large graphics or pictures of food under text can make the menu difficult to read and a bit of an eyesore. Consequently, a google image search of “good restaurant menus” shows that they’re generally very simple and easy to read.
In other words, no added clutter equals a better menu. And there are a few modern features like QR codes that can make you stand out that much more.
Step 5: Proofread
You’d think this is obvious, but the number of typos I’ve caught over the years would like a word.
You don’t need to hire a professional copywriter (though it pains me to say that), but you do need more than one pair of eyes to go over your menu - and maybe some software like Grammarly, too.
Look for incorrect pricing, characters (# vs. $), and typos, because if you don’t find them, your customers will - and that’s embarrassing. While this isn’t rocket science, it’s utterly crucial - after all, you’re a business. You should present yourself as such, and that certainly includes proper spelling.