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The Menu is so important, it’s usually a big compromise.

Article by
Charlie Hopper
Principal, Writer
Young & Laramore
Placeholder Image? Freddy do Ekm B2 O8vr2o unsplash

Happens all the time. Too many people get involved in a business’s most important project. Conflicting voices and contradictory views drive the solution toward the safe, toward the middle, toward a visionless compromise. It happens in all kinds of companies.

At restaurants, it happens when it’s time to design the menu.

What do you want to feature? Everything!

What do you want people to buy? Something they’ll enjoy! What is that? Who knows? What time of day is it? How much money do they have?

Oh, and let’s push the items with the widest margins. But also the items that people like best. And we’re known for.

And we might be adding some new items down the road. Anticipate that, please.

Then when the head chef and the C-suite are done, a designer is summoned.

On that day, a bunch of at least somewhat compromised plans are unloaded onto the designer with the kind of ominous admonishment that they’re expected to deploy their skills rather generically to “sell” the ordained items; to create appetite; to up-sell; and probably at some point the designer is instructed to make something or another “pop.”

There’s always something that’s supposed to “pop.”

Meanwhile the writer is scribbling notes, hoping she can find words that accurately describe the food in a way that will be approved with minimal revisions. Depending on the taste of the person who has final approval, the writer is either expected to whip up excitement for certain specific items with lavish layering of praise and adjectives, or to back off and communicate nothing but the facts of the food.

So. Your menu can win a fan, or confuse the guest into giving up. It can subtly guide people to the item you think they’ll enjoy most, or overwhelm them. And it can give visitors an idea of what you’re about.

Here’s a wonderful year-end list I missed, compiling a design blog’s favorite menu designs of 2012. They judge menus on how they communicate, not so much on how they sell (although that’s a consideration; there’s just no results listed)—but it’s useful to hear the way they judge a successful design.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at how the menu medium is the message, and what the hell I mean by that.

Charlie Hopper, Principal, Writer at Y&L

Over the past 30-something years, Charlie’s played many roles at Y&L, including writer, principal, general enthusiast and creative director on Steak ’n Shake during its heyday at the agency. He is also the author of Selling Eating: Restaurant Marketing Beyond the Word “Delicious.”