ASHES TO ASHES: The Life Cycle of a Menu Item
Over the last few days I’ve come to have menus on the brain again. Part of this is probably because I was writing about serving smaller portions and was just looking at so many menus (and let me tell you, writing those posts while hungry was absolutely brutal). And part of this is because of our killer new (and now completed) series on Menu Innovation that Luke wrote.
So we’re going to sort of keep on keepin’ on with menus for the next day or so and explore some topics that we didn’t really get into too much in our fairly exhaustive (and apparently ongoing) series about Menu Design & Menu Psychology.
I figure that right now we’ll pick up where Menu Innovation left off, and talk about the general life cycle of a given menu item.
THE CIRCLE OF LIFE. FOR A MENU ITEM, THAT IS.
Okay. So you’ve gone through ideation. You’ve then run the gauntlet of feasibility. And the few items that managed to survive have now been launched upon an unsuspecting populace. What comes next, and what should you expect?
Like all things in life, menu items have a lifespan to them and will, eventually, die. Now there are occasional exceptions, and sometimes they die like a phoenix dies, only to be reborn in blood and fire (or, to be less dramatic, re-engineered to make them continually viable), but for the most part all good things must come to pass.
There are four main parts to a given menu item’s life cycle:
Let’s talk about some reasonable expectations to have for each given phase, shall we? Note that I am going to limit the discussion to what’s happening inside your restaurant. There are a whole host of external factors (like marketing, or what your competition may be doing) as well; we’ll break those off separately at another time.
This is the period immediately following the launch of a new dish. In this phase, don’t expect much in the way of sales. Your goal here is to allow this dish to gain traction among your customers by using proper menu positioning, in-house collateral and your staff to get it front-and-center. Maybe a marketing campaign, be it traditional, guerrilla or through social media is in order to get the word out.
Regardless, don’t expect too much in this stage and you won’t be let down. Growth will eventually turn positive on a dish in this phase.
Your dish has now gained traction: expect rapid sales growth at first, and then a gradual leveling off and maybe even a slight decline as it approaches maturity.
Expect stable sales as the dish becomes a staple of your menu. Of course, not all menu items are created equally; we already know from our discussion way back when about menu engineering that there are stars, workhorses, puzzles and dogs. In other words, they can’t all be winners. This is the phase where such determinations can be accurately made.
And this is where the gravy train finally rolls into the station. Sometimes customers move on to other, newer items, or sometimes things just burn out on their own. Either way, items stop being profitable and are probably not worth keeping around. Hopefully they had a good run.
DUST TO DUST: MAKING THE LIFE CYCLE WORK FOR YOU
Now that you know how this cycle works, what should you do with it? I’m glad you asked.
Your goal is to have a menu that has items spread across all of these phases. In other words, you want items in the introduction phase while items are in the maturity phase, so that by the time items are sliding towards oblivion, you have the an item hitting the growth phase to make up for the decline in revenue.
A measured approach like this ensures a few things:
- It keeps your menu from getting stale.
- It helps better serve your customers’ needs by keeping on top of them.
- It offers more flexibility.
Note that this strategy (and it’s a strategy that everyone should be adhering to) requires you to be consistently monitoring your menu sales mix so you can stay ahead of declining sales for any given item. Which you should be doing, anyway, but still.