Your restaurant’s menu is kind of like your wardrobe: Sure, you’ve got some old classics you’ll never get rid of, but every once in a while you need to give it a serious overhaul.
Of course, if you fail to update your clothes, at worst you’re that person that’s still wearing neon spandex and leg warmers. Fail to update your menu, and you may quickly find that your restaurant is out of business. Unless you’re a classic spot that’s known for specific specialty menu items like this lobster and burger joint, you’ll eventually need to change your restaurant’s offerings. And there’s no better time than the New Year to start fresh. Here are a few tips for revamping your restaurant’s menu in 2016.
Decide What Stays and What Goes
If you’re new to the restaurant game and haven’t done a menu overhaul before, don’t freak out. It doesn’t mean scrapping everything you’ve worked hard to create just for the sake of newness. Think of your menu as something that constantly evolves, so keep what’s working and scrap what’s not.
How do you know what’s working? Consulting with your POS and inventory systems to see what’s selling is one way. But you may find things like burgers selling well simply because they’re burgers, and a default order for less adventurous diners. That doesn’t mean it’s the highlight of your menu.
Comment cards are also a helpful tool, but they create a couple of hurdles: First, even for a small reward, most customers won’t take the time to fill them out unless they were blown away or highly disappointed. Second, many people will just tell you everything was excellent to be nice, and not give any specifics about what they enjoyed.
That same is true for personally asking tables what they enjoyed. Most people won’t say anything negative to your face, and just tell you everything’s great. Even if you ask for a specific, they may simply pick something they enjoyed, rather than explain why it really stood out. So leverage technology to help revamp out your restaurant’s menu: First, look at your online reviews and see which menu items people rave about the most. Take the time to read them all so you can get a general consensus, and keep the stuff that gets the most hype.
Secondly, search social media for pictures of your food. At first this might sound narcissistic, but look at it like a giant focus group: Customers post pictures of your food, their followers give feedback, and you learn what people are into. Take a look and see which items are getting the most “likes,” and what comments people are leaving.
What Should My Restaurant Feature Its New Menu?
Excellent question, and one the National Restaurant Association sought to answer by polling 1,575 chefs about the food trends they saw emerging in the coming year. You can check out the whole food trends report here but here are the highlights:
Ethnic condiments and spices are going to be huge ingredients in 2016 – as are artisanal sodas, unusual liquors and locally sourced stuff.
Middle Eastern and African cuisines will also be big. And while we wouldn’t suggest turning your pizza place into kebab house, you might look into a ground lamb pizza.
Liquid nitrogen desserts are out. As are blood sausage, foams, flatbreads and bacon-flavored chocolate. So you can go ahead and throw away your molecular gastronomy kit.
Kale, quinoa, unusual fish and gluten-free foods are also finding their way off menus.
Beyond what chefs have predicted, there are a number of other emerging trends:
Food Scraps: Don’t worry, we’re not telling you to take the stuff left on people’s plates and re-serve it as “Repurposed Lunch.” But the collective consciousness of sustainability and limiting food waste is a selling point on menus, and customers appreciate beef scraps used as pizza toppings or vegetable ends used in soup.
Sliders: The small size makes them a lot easier to experiment with than large burgers, and diners now want to try smaller amounts of more things. Play around with flavors and offer sampler platters with your new slider variations. If nothing else, it can be a great testing ground for new sandwich ideas.
Vegetables: Finally, a healthy trend that can save you money! Veggies are becoming a popular protein source on menus, but don’t just put out a salad and think you’re done with it. Diners are looking for creative ways of serving these vegetables. Try sous vide veggies to give people a surprising texture. And, in keeping with the trendiness of middle eastern flavors, cucumbers are expected to be the “it” vegetable of 2016.
Spicy Foods: If the sriracha explosion of the past few years showed us anything, it’s that people are into hot food. Push boundaries with this, and offer up things that people will see as an eating challenge. That’s not to say your new menu should be made up of foods nobody over 70 can eat, but definitely offer some intensely spicy options to pique some interest in your new menu.
Filled Dough: We’re talking samosas, dumplings, potstickers, or any other kind of ethnic food with meat or vegetables surrounded by delicious home-made dough. Though they can be labor intensive, they’re another way for you to play with all kinds of inventive meat and veggie combinations and dip them in exotic sauces.
Once you've decided what dishes to add to your menu, it's also a great idea to upgrade your restaurant's menu design. You'll be surprised how much impact the colors you use and the material on which your menu is printed on has on your customers' dining choices. Here is a great resource that outlines six menu design tricks that can help your customers spend more money in your restaurant.
A new menu is a chance to bring new people into your restaurant, and shouldn’t be looked at a simple collection of additions and subtractions. Keep your ear to the ground and read restaurant blogs to stay ahead of food trends. Find out what people like so your old customers keep coming back, but lure in new clientele by listening to the culinary trends and adapting your menu accordingly. And if people don’t like it? Well, it’s a lot easier to take an item off your menu than it is to throw out an entire closet’s worth of neon spandex.