Menu Design vol. 2 – Menu Writing part 2: Actually, uh, writing.
Alright, it’s Friday, so let’s just dive in.
Yesterday we went over the psychology at play behind descriptive menu labels and item descriptions, and looked at a study that espoused the merits of using them. Today, as the title of this post says, we’re actually going to talk about going about naming your items and, if your menu necessitates it, giving your items descriptions.
Step one: determining your angle
Okay, before we get too far ahead of ourselves, the first order of business is determining your angle. By that I mean your menu has to be tailored to your restaurant’s concept and your customers. For instance: I read an interview with a chef the other day who said that writing her menu is like writing a poem. Uh, no thanks. But I’m not her target audience and it’s obviously working out for her, so whatever’s clever, you know? At any rate, think long and hard about your restaurant, your food and the people who patronize your business before writing anything down. Two quick examples: are you a casual establishment? You probably want to play up your value and portion size. Are you a bit more upscale? Then you’re probably looking to highlight your quality and unique ingredients.
Every restaurant has a story to tell with their food, and that story begins at the menu.
Step two: write!
Now that we’ve figured out what kind of stuff to write, it’s time to actually write. Let’s start by going over the four main types of descriptors used in item names, and absolutely feel free to use them:
- Geographic – These descriptors call out a specific region in an attempt to seem more authentic, because, you know, people like authenticity. What sounds better: Kansas City-style ribs, or Pork Spareribs? I thought so.
- Nostalgia – So the now-famous example from the Wansink et al. study is “Grandma’s Zucchini Cookies.” Which sounds about as appealing to me as “Grandma’s Unnecessary Surgery,” but whatever. A word like “homestyle,” or using a term like “comfort food” in the description also fit the bill. This is an attempt to use implicit memory to make positive associations with your food based on past experiences. In other words, nostalgic.
- Sensory – These tend to be fancy-pants terms that play off of the five senses. Eating is an extremely sensual experience, is it any wonder that people respond positively to terms like “silk” and “sumptuous” in anticipation of what’s to come?
- Brand Names – People already like brands. If you’re serving, like, Minute Maid juice, say so on your menu. Other examples include calling out a brand name ingredient if it’s a featured ingredient in a dish. Like when you go to Chili’s, they have their Shiner Bock barbecue sauce on their ribs. Which helps in two ways: people recognize and respond to it, and since it isn’t something like Michelob, using a smaller, Texas-based independent beer gives Chili’s a bit more credibility on the ribs front. Note that this goes double, no, triple if you’re using a locally-produced brand.
So those are the basic kinds of descriptors that you’ll want to consider using in your item names and item descriptions. Which brings me to….
To describe, or not to describe
…that is the question. Should you be using descriptions on your menu? That depends on a variety of factors. Are you using locally-sourced ingredients? People feel good about that kind of thing, so throw it in there. Is your menu already looking kind of cramped? Maybe it’s best to leave them off. Now if you want to highlight a specific thing about an item that the name itself doesn’t (and in a plain English way) that you think is of interest to your diner, then yeah, maybe. When in doubt, though, always remember: less is more. If people have a question, they’ll ask. Not to mention that your servers should already be fishing for those kinds of questions.
In other words, you’re going to have to use your judgment. If you don’t trust your judgment (and don’t feel bad, I rarely trust mine), feel free to call upon the services of a menu hit squad here at Vanee Foods for help.
I know that I used the term “best practices” yesterday, but despite the fact that I’ll inevitably use it again, it seems pretty stodgy. So today it’s going to be “general guidelines.” Hey, what can I say? I’m an informal guy.
Here are some tips to keep in mind while crafting your menu text:
- Be context appropriate. This ties in to figuring out your angle, but in the throes of writing it can be easy to get carried away and lose sight of your theme.
- Speaking of, don’t get carried away. Keep it short and simple. Again, less is more. Learn it, live it.
- Don’t try to show off. In other words, don’t try to make something sound more impressive than it is. Especially if you’re using another language.
- Speaking of other languages, if it’s appropriate for your restaurant (say you have an Italian place), make sure you’re using the proper terms and spelling them correctly. Example: did you know that cannoli is plural? The singular is cannolo. Apparently my computer doesn’t even know that, because it’s telling me that isn’t a word. You’re trying to establish yourself as an authority here. Act like one.
- Don’t use all sorts of crazy jargon that will go over peoples’ heads. Unless, of course, your clientele expects that of you. In which case, go nuts.
- Don’t go overboard on the hyperbole. If you make a dish sound like the Second Coming of, um, eating, people will inevitably disappointed.
- Please, please, please proof read. And then proof read again. And then have other people proof read. Typos, misspellings and misuse make it look like you don’t care. Like the other day, I had a flyer on my front door for a landscaping service, and it was filled with misspelled words. All I could think was “Man, if you can’t be bothered with your business, why should I bother with it?”
- Did I mention that when in doubt, less is more? I did? Because when in doubt, less is more.
- Find a different way to word “special sauce.”
So there we have it. You’re now ready to go forth and begin writing (or rewriting) your menu text. Note that I didn’t touch on things like “mission statements” or chef biographies on your menu. I went to art school; as such I’ve read all of the artist statements that I want to in my life. The last thing that I want to do is have to snooze my way through one just to get to the food on a menu, especially when I’m probably a little cranky from being hungry already. Now that being said, it’s entirely possible that stuff like that is the right thing for your menu. That’s for you to decide; please don’t let my colloquial iconoclasm deter you.
That’s it for this week. Come back on Monday when we’ll be starting to talk about pricing the items on your menu; you may be surprised! Or maybe not. Whatever. Until then, drop Vanee Foods a line if you want us to dispatch our menu commandos to help your business maximize profits with your menu design.
Have a great weekend!