From the Board: The Joy of a Simple Menu

Lean, clean, and mean engineering pays.

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Years ago, the sight of a menu filled with page after page of food choices seemed like a good thing. Lots of operators tried this approach; only a handful successfully executed and succeeded. The Cheesecake Factory comes to mind.

Tastes change, and the rise of chef-driven as well as fast-casual restaurants has dramatically shrunk today’s menus, as have the needs to rein in food  costs and cross-utilize. This is a good thing for a number of reasons. Of course, menus are just one component to what should be a multi-part interactive experience with your guests at mealtimes.

Famed restauranteur and chef Michael Mina has some of the most readable and concise menus in the industry today—lots of menu white space with clear and clean graphics. This encourages guests to think more about the food rather than pages of options. Smaller, simpler menus also allow the chef to focus on precise execution of a handful of dishes and to adapt seasonally to fresher ingredients.

While hotel managers rightfully want to accommodate the dietary needs of as many guests as possible, there really is no downside to opting for a simpler menu. The art and science of menu engineering—where things are placed; how many proteins, starches, fruits/vegetables; pricing; listings; etc.—really comes into play during an outlet’s menu revamp. Things cannot just randomly be taken off and put on a new menu.

A recent menu revamp for a luxury hotel property in southern California was an intensive process involving almost every restaurant outlet team member. Led by the GM and executive chef, all hotel departments participated in some way to analyze pre- and post-menu-launch guest feedback. Taking the necessary time, usually a four- to six-month process, and strategically involving key team members resulted in a more approachable and simpler read for guests. This approach also allowed the culinary team to make changes to seasonal items while keeping long-time favorites untouched.

The details of menu and individual item costing are also not to be overlooked during a menu revamp process. This is where the culinary team and your internal or corporate purchasing departments work hand in hand. The days of not worrying about portion control or “appropriate” plate composition and presentation have been over for some time. Successful operators and managers know that menu guides and plate presentation standards need to be taught and visually cued to kitchen line cooks and chefs to ensure a consistent end product.

Always remember that to simplify a menu is really a necessity in today’s ultra-competitive environment. Don’t just change a menu to change it. There should be a strategic, inclusive process leading to a welcoming read for your guests that is a treat to their senses.

Tom Kelley-4x5Tom Kelley
Member, Hotel Food & Beverage Leadership Association Advisory Board, and Founder and President of AccessPoint Group