How Many Items Should a Restaurant Menu Have?

Billion-dollar restaurant chains don’t become bank-rolling successes overnight. Every decision is made for a specific reason, with rationality and science to back-up every choice they make while developing their menu. If you think this happens by accident, prepare to be surprised by the tricks that have been played on you (and how you can use them in your own restaurant!) 

Depending on the quality/scale of the restaurant, you will want less than ten options in each category (appetizers, entrees, desserts, etc.) Too many menu items will quickly feel overwhelming for your guests, causing them to lose confidence in their instinctive decision-making skills. 

You may have believed that you were ordering from restaurants by your own free-will, but there was more psychology at play than you may have understood. Use this quick read to gather the best tricks for your menu, how to make people spend more per dining experience, and increase sales based on evidence from the behavioral psychologists that know us best! 

How to Plan a Restaurant Menu 

You may fall under the belief of – The more options, the better! However, in restaurant cultivation, this is the furthest thing from the truth. In a fascinating study, done in the U.S. called When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?, Columbia and Stanford Universities discovered that: 

“Having unlimited options, then, can lead people to be more dissatisfied with the choices they make.”

Mostly, when you’re given ten items to choose from instead of 30, you will feel:

  • Less anxious
  • Less pressure to make the right decision
  • More confident in your decision because you won’t have so many other options to feel like you’ve missed out on something.

More is not always better. People prefer to be given a reasonable amount of choices, which is known as The Paradox of Choice. This paradox is the reason that many restaurants will limit the number of menu items.

Keeping the Menu Quantity Simple

Regarding the title query, you can have as many items as you desire, and this will significantly depend on the following factors of your restaurant:

  • Caliber
  • Quality
  • Geographic area
  • Target audience and their needs
  • Type of cuisine

A few things to keep in mind are:

  • Think of Mexican restaurants – They have about 5-10 ingredients that make 20-50+ dishes. Out of tortillas, tomato, avocado, and cheese, they can make nearly anything. Aim to construct your menu this way instead of having 50 menu items that need unique ingredients. 

This tactic will keep your food costs lower and profitability higher, while also making it easier on your kitchen staff. 

  • 7 is a sweet spot – We mentioned that you should have less than ten items in each section (appetizers, entrees, desserts, etc.) 5 can sometimes feel like not enough items to choose from, for your entrée especially. 7 is a proven sweet-spot that allows people to feel they have options, but not too many options. 
  • If you want fewer menu items – The real place that you don’t want to skimp is on your entrée items. If you want to cut costs, do it on the other, less critical sections of your menu. Put fewer options on the categories of:
    • Appetizers (could have 3-5)
    • Salads (could have 2-3)
    • Soups (could have 2-3)
    • Desserts (could have 2-5)

The Psychology Behind Menu Design 

A well-designed menu will cause your restaurant to succeed, while a poorly-designed menu can easily be the reason for your restaurant’s demise. 

With a reason behind every decision made, here are a few key factors to place close attention to: 

Color Psychology

Notice that the following restaurants (and many others) feature the colors red and yellow in their logo, branding, and interior design:

  • McDonald’s
  • Pizza Hut
  • Wendy’s
  • Burger King
  • Carl’s Jr

This decision is deliberate. Psychologists have discovered that these colors make you hungrier, and you tend to eat more when surrounded by them.

If you want to understand more check out Natalie Nahai´s book “Webs of Influence“about the the Psychology of Online Persuasion.  

Tips for the primary colors used in menus are:

  • Red – Grabs attention, makes people hungry, gets people to notice the dish you want them to see. 
  • Orange – Associated with healthy foods such as orange juice, carrots, etc., orange is a color that is proven to stimulate your appetite.
  • Yellow – Will also stimulate appetite (virtually all warm-color tones will), and it is also a color that makes people happy. Add it to your menu selectively to add pops of character and personality, if that is suited to your restaurant’s brand. 
  • Green – Associated with fresh food, great to use for fonts over your salads or vegetarian items. 

The Golden Triangle 

The Golden Triangle is a menu-centric rule that describes the order in which your eyes tend to move. Experts have discovered that most people will direct their gaze:

  • To the center of the menu
  • Then to the top right
  • Then to the top left

Consider this your highest-grossing property of real-estate. Place popular items that are more expensive in these locations. 

First and Last Rule 

People’s eyes will go to the first and last items on your menu. Make these highly-popular items that have a slightly higher price. 

Hiding Currency  

You may have noticed that many restaurants will hide the prices. This is typically for higher-scale restaurants and fine-dining where they assume the guest is there to enjoy an experience, not hunt for the cheapest item.

However, if you are not a fine dining establishment, your guests will expect to see prices. A way to remove some of the impacts of seeing prices is to remove the currency symbol. 

Making it only a number (not blatant currency) is an easy way to cause guests to detach emotionally from their money, and therefore, spend more of it. This is a subtle trick, but when a guest only sees the number, it is less deterring than if they visualize the cost benefit as real money. 

Using Adjectives 

Everyone loves to read things such as:

  • The decadent lamb stew
  • Slow-roasted pot pie
  • Tender Buttermilk Chicken, Marinated for 48-hours
  • Juicy sirloin

Use these descriptive words and thoughtful adjectives to make your cuisine sound even more delectable.

Emotional Resonance 

Related to this, people love a description that evokes emotion. Tell a story through your menu or select a few essential items to be your ‘heart-string-tuggers.’ 

Examples of this are:

  • Grandma’s Famous Apple Pie
  • Nana’s Secret Recipe (something about grandmas! People love a recipe that’s been passed on for generations). 
  • Telling a story about that item including
    • How you discovered it
    • How you perfected it
    • Why it is so significant to your restaurant
    • Why people love it

If it is your most expensive menu item, tell people more about it, and they will buy more of it. If you give them nothing to go on, they will have little incentive to splurge on the item. Make it ‘worth it’ to them. 

Decoy Dishes

Utilizing what you know about the Golden Triangle and First-and-Last Rule, place some decoy dishes around the menu.

Intermittently scatter a few sporadic dishes that you don’t necessarily want to sell much of – these will be called your Decoy Dishes.

Everything on your menu should be tasty. However, some restaurant specialists will keep the cheaper stuff away from the Golden Triangle, keeping customers focused on their most lucrative dishes. 

Manipulate Their Comparative Psychology 

Alternatively, you can do this the opposite way by placing some higher-priced items on the menu to cause people to purchase more of your main dishes.

For example: If you want them to purchase the $15 lasagna, place a $30 steak next to it. If the lasagna were surrounded by all $10 dishes, it would look overpriced. But next to the $30 steak, it seems like a steal! 

Negative Space

Leave empty room around the items you want to sell the most of. Just as with art in a gallery, you need white walls behind them to see one work of art at a time. 

Be intentional about where you grab their focus by adding:

  • Blank space around prominent items
  • Rectangles or frames around certain things
  • Highlighted, bold, italics, and other formatting tools to break up the text 

Best Size for Your Restaurant Menu

The best size for your menu will vary depending on what kind of restaurant you own.

The National Restaurant Association creates contests each year to survey popular menu techniques. They discovered that the most common size used for menus is 9-inches by 12-inches (23-30cm). Many use the standard paper size – 8.5-inches by 11-inches. If you prefer a longer menu, 12-inches by 18-inches is about as large as you should go. Any larger than this and it will feel strange and bulky to hold. 

If your menu is too extensive for this, break it up into separate menus. This makes your guests feel that they are dining in a more up-scale restaurant while also keeping your menu sizes reasonable. 

To keep the sizes manageable, break them into:

  • Food menu
  • Wine menu
  • Dessert Menu
  • Kids Menu

Final Tips for Restaurant Start-Ups

Running a successful restaurant will take more than a fantastic menu, but the food and customer service is what will bring people back for repeat service.

A few other steps you can take to cause further guest spending are:

  • A Colder Room Will Make You Hungrier – A hot room will cause guests to feel sluggish and lazy, not desire a full belly. Turn down the A/C just enough to jolt people’s appetites awake, but not enough that you’re continually getting temperature complaints. If you are receiving too many complaints, turn it up slightly and find the ideal range where complaints cease.
  • Turn Up The Music – Increases Table Flipping Speed & Turnaround – Bon Appetit found in their piece, ‘3 Reasons Why Restaurants are So Loud,’ that:

“Loud music makes us “drunk.” There’s scientific proof that the louder and faster the music, the faster (and often more) people eat and drink. In the past, corporate restaurant chains have even developed soundtracks that switch to higher tempo music at a louder volume when they want to turn tables.”

  • Include an A La Carte Menu – For items to choose from individually, which customers tend to enjoy. Not offering this will lead to many guests asking for off-menu items or exceptions, which can be challenging to manage while communicating and confirming with the kitchen consistently. Remove the communication step and make this flexibility feasible to your guests from the start. 
  • Know the Power of a First Impression – Menu experts have discovered that people will look over the menu in about 109 seconds. That’s all the time you have to keep people hooked and coming back for more. Repeat clients are what will keep your restaurant afloat, so don’t seek to impress people quickly and for short durations. Aim to impress them for the long-haul. 

In Conclusion 

Your menu is only as effective as the decisions you make while designing it. Experts recommend sticking to about 5-10 items per menu section, with the bulk of your options listed under entrée selections. 

Read the menu over and be honest with yourself. Conduct multiple edits with input from your target audience. Once all is received, and edits are made, ask yourself – “As a guest, would I feel happy with these options? Or is this menu overwhelming?” 

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