How Often Should a Restaurant Update Its Menu?

Your restaurant has been in business for a while now, and business is good. You might take the approach of if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it when it comes to your menu. After all, people know they can rely on the same trusty and true menu when they come in to eat, which is comforting. Do you have to update your restaurant’s menu, and if so, how often?

It’s recommended you update your restaurant’s menu at least once a year. If you’re a more seasonal establishment, then you might swap out new food offerings for the season as many as four times a year. Upgrading the menu annually or more than once a year is a good way to control food costs.

If this will be your first time changing your restaurant’s menu, then you’re not going to want to miss this article. In it, we’ll discuss more on how often you need a new menu and some reasons why updating the menu is a good idea. We’ll also walk you through the steps to updating your menu, from preparing the change to execution. Keep reading!

How Often Should Your Restaurant Update Its Menu?

No two restaurants are alike. Thus, what conventional wisdom suggests might not necessarily work for your establishment, and that’s okay. While how often you change your restaurant’s menu largely comes down to cuisine and food availability, what’s undeniable is that you must update the menu at least from time to time. We’ll explain more about the reasons why in the next section. 

Most restaurateurs will opt to update their menu either seasonally or annually. Here is more information about both options. 

Seasonally

As the seasons change throughout the year, certain foods and ingredients are in season while others are not. Your restaurant may choose to take the best harvests from any season and use these ingredients as the basis of your menu.

If that’s the case, then it’s expected you update your menu at least twice a year, if not four times a year. Selling a fresh strawberry shortcake or a peaches and cream dessert–both two very summery dishes–into the winter will not only turn off your customers, but the freshness of these ingredients is no longer guaranteed since they’re out of season.

Italian pasta bolognese with beef, basil and parmesan cheese.

Changing your menu by the season will require your restaurant to keep one season’s menu active for about four months. This can be a lot of switching back and forth, so you might opt for a twice-a-year menu change instead. Since you’re still basing your menu around the seasons, you could have a cold-weather menu for the autumn and winter and then a warm-weather menu you bring out in the spring and summer. 

Annually

If your restaurant is less about seasonal changes, then you’ll want to rotate your menu out at least once a year. When that period every year arrives is your choice. Perhaps you start fresh in January or you wait until your restaurant’s anniversary to revamp your offerings. No matter which time of the year your menu upgrade season is, we recommend you include an audit with your update. We’ll talk about the importance of audits later in this guide, so make sure you keep reading!

Whether you opt to change your menu four times a year or only once, make sure you cover the whole menu. That includes drinks like cocktails. For a seasonal menu, it’s again a matter of consistency and coherence across the whole menu, as a cranberry brandy is much more of a wintery drink than a summery one.

Reasons to Update Your Restaurant Menu

You might worry that changing a menu your current customers know and love so much might be more detrimental than helpful to your restaurant’s bottom line. After all, if your regulars come in next week and none of what they’re used to is on the menu anymore, won’t they want to turn around and leave? And won’t they complain?

Well, first of all, such a scenario wouldn’t happen because you wouldn’t blindside your customers like that. You’d let them know what’s going on before the changes go into effect.

Besides, you should want to change your restaurant menu from time to time. Doing so is a great way to control costs, which is important in keeping your restaurant afloat in the short-term and long-term.

Here are three such reasons that will incentivize you to make a change to your menu ASAP.

To Accommodate for Labor Costs

The world of restaurants is undoubtedly a crowded one. According to SmallBizGenius, in 2018, 13,251 restaurants popped up in the United States alone. Statista data from that same year suggests that the US already has 660,755 restaurants, so there’s no shortage at all of places to go out and eat.

This can make holding onto labor, or your restaurant staff, difficult. If your workers don’t like their pay or their conditions, then they won’t hesitate to jump ship to another restaurant, possibly even one right down the corner. 

You might have to pay more to hold onto the labor staff you do have, and that money must come from somewhere. Overpaying in any area of your restaurant can lead to its demise, so you have to cut back spending in other areas. 

That’s why assessing your current restaurant menu is such a good idea. You can change dishes or dump some of the more expensive ones so you can afford to keep your labor staff working and happy to be doing so.

To Give Your Customers Something New

Some of your patrons undoubtedly do appreciate the same-old, same-old nature of your menu. Others though get bored with seeing the same things on the menu all the time. To keep everyone happy, you might keep some staple dishes but change out most of the menu.

Giving your customers something new is always a good thing. It expands the breadth of your restaurant, showing that you can accommodate changing consumer tastes and demands. This will increase the loyalty of your regulars, as they’ll see you’re doing all you can to keep them pleased.

Your new menu can also attract customers who may not have eaten at your restaurant before because your tastes didn’t necessarily appeal to them. It’s a win-win. 

To Keep up with Food Costs

The biggest reason by far to check in on and update your restaurant menu at least annually is to control food costs. This multi-year chart from Restaurant.org shows that food costs have sharply increased since 2006 and have mostly stayed that way. Currently, in 2020, food costs are some of the highest they’ve ever been.

Your restaurant needs food, but if you can barely afford to procure it, then it’s only a matter of time before your establishment risks going under. To prevent that from happening, you might boost the prices of food on your menu, but in the present climate, that’s a little hard to do. The economic effects of COVID-19 have left the country in a recession-like state. 

In other periods where the economy is poor as well, your customers can’t afford to pay more to eat the same food they used to enjoy for less. They will stop giving you their business and go to a cheaper restaurant instead. Or they’ll watch a YouTube tutorial or Google a recipe online and think they can make restaurant-quality food at home.

Both scenarios will impact your revenue, so what do you do?

Rather than sharply ratcheting up the price of food, look at your menu. We’ll talk about this more in the next section, but a food audit allows you to see which dishes make the most money versus which cost the most to prepare. Then, it’s just a matter of whittling down your menu. 

How to Update Your Restaurant Menu: A Step by Step Guide

Okay, so you’re convinced that it’s high time for you to do something new with your menu. The only problem is you have no idea how and where to begin. We’ll walk you through the process of readying your restaurant’s new menu in six steps. 

Here’s what you need to know.

Step 1: Do an Audit

We’ve talked about audits enough, so what is a restaurant audit anyway? This isn’t a formal audit by an outside professional, but rather, an in-house audit performed by you and maybe a few other key staff members.

You’re focusing on costs here, especially areas of cost savings. To begin your audit, you want to go through your current menu and list everything on there. That includes appetizers, main dishes, drinks, side dishes, desserts, and whatever else you sell. 

First, you want to deconstruct each dish, adding up the costs of buying the raw ingredients themselves. Then, compare that cost to the price you sell the dish for. Are you spending more money on ingredients than what you’re earning back? That’s no way to run a restaurant.

If you’re thinking you want to keep the dish on the menu, then look into other local restaurants that sell the same dish. What are they charging? If you’re overcharging, then it might be time to cut this item, as it’s too expensive to keep You can also change out some ingredients, but if that changes the backbone of the dish too much, then cut it from the menu.

If you’re a fast-food restaurant, through auditing and modifying your menu, you might be able to achieve food costs at around 25 percent. Sit-down restaurants and even casual establishments should expect higher food costs of 30 to 35 percent. 

That doesn’t mean you jack the prices up so you’re controlling costs to that degree on inexpensive menu items, as that’s a bit extreme. Also, for the more expensive offerings on your menu, food costs may be higher than even 35 percent. For example, if your menu includes filet mignon, lobster, or swordfish, then your food costs can be 40, even 45 percent. You’ll want to ensure the prices you sell these premium food items for are higher to accommodate for the money you’re spending on ingredients.

When calculating the food costs for a dish, you can’t just take the main dish and use that alone. If you serve your filet mignon with a baked potato, for instance, then add the price of the potato into the overall costs. The same is true if your lobster comes with a side of wild rice. 

Do keep in mind that food costs are not set in stone. Economic situations like the pandemic can influence the availability of food, as can drought and an overall poor growing season. The time of year will also influence what your food costs look like. For example, you can get strawberries more affordably in the spring and summer for your strawberry cheesecake dessert than you can in say September or February.  

Step 2: Make Cuts Based on Customer Preference and Other Factors

After having done your food audit, you may have realized how much you’ve overspent on food costs to this point. Dumping some food items from the menu immediately will bring costs down to a more reasonable degree, but you shouldn’t only let food costs dictate what stays and what goes on your menu. 

Think also of your customer’s preferences. If you have a dish that you’re known for and attracts the customers, then you certainly don’t want to remove that. Your big sellers should also stay on the menu unless your audit revealed that you spend more to make the dish than you earn. 

If you’re really trying to cut costs, then you might base your menu around ingredients that are inexpensive to procure or easy to prepare. This is one avenue you can take, but make sure you’re not completely changing your restaurant’s ideals or atmosphere on the quest of trying to save a quick buck. If taken to the extreme, such as buying pre-frozen food, thawing it out, and serving it, you will undoubtedly alienate your customers. 

By this stage, you know what’s going to stay and what’s going to go on your menu. If the remaining items on the menu make the whole thing look a little sparse, then have a brainstorming meeting and come up with some new dishes you can introduce instead.

The rule of thumb is that for every category of food on your menu, you give your customers at least seven foods to choose from, eight if you’re feeling generous. So that would mean seven to eight appetizers, seven to eight desserts, etc. 

Step 3: Create a Rough Draft of the Menu Design

You likely have all your new menu items written on a sheet of loose-leaf or even jotted down on your phone. Now it’s time to take these foods and create a brand-new menu around them. 

If you have the funds, then you might outsource this design job to a graphic designer or a similar pro. You can also design the menu inhouse using paid computer software. 

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Your menu design doesn’t have to be too crazy; in fact, overdoing it on the design flourishes can detract from what you’re trying to do, inform your customers of their dining choices. Here are some restaurant menu design tips to keep in mind for an appealing menu style your customers will enjoy:

  • If you’re using color, then try to incorporate colors that match your restaurant. These could be the themed colors of your establishment, colors that match your décor, or hues that complement your food style. For instance, a Tex-Mex restaurant’s menu might have colors like green, red, orange, and yellow.
  • Choose legible fonts and ensure they’re in a large enough size that customers can read them. That’s doubly true if your restaurant has dim lighting. 
  • Divide different parts of your menu with boxes or lines so your customers don’t get confused when they peruse the menu.
  • Skip the currency signs. A study from The Hotel School Cornell SC Johnson College of Business found that when you put a currency sign in front of your food prices, it deters people from ordering that food. So if your nachos sell for $5.50, you’d style it like 5.5 with no currency sign in front of it.
  • Add illustrations if they work with your restaurant theme, but make sure they’re not too distracting. 
  • Use photos to emphasize parts of your menu rather than illustrate what every item on the menu looks like, especially if you’re a higher-end restaurant. 
  • Understand how customers read menus. They may begin at the top left as if they were reading a book. Make sure your menu flows in that style.

Step 4: Update Your In-Restaurant Menu

Once you’re pleased with the design of your new restaurant menu, it’s time to go through every laminated menu or menu book in your restaurant and insert the new restaurant offerings instead. Make sure you print your menu on high-quality paper. 

Step 5: Get Your Menu Current Online 

Next, you have to make sure your new menu is updated online as well, such as on your Google Business account and across social media. Otherwise, you’ll have a customer who looked up your menu online ahead of time, picked out what they wanted, and then get very upset when they realize your new menu is totally different.

iMenuPro is one such service you can use for updating your online offerings. This restaurant menu design service makes it easy to change your menu on your social media as well as your website so your menu is always current. 

OpenMenu offers a similar service. When you sign up for an account at OpenMen, you can get your new menu sent across the Internet so you don’t create customer confusion with your old versus new menu. 

Their syncing allows you to update the menu as often as you want, so even if you’re a seasonal restaurant who changes the menu four times a year, as soon as you alter the menu, OpenMenu syncs the new version and sends it out to your social accounts and your website. 

Step 6: Inform Your Customers of the Changes

The last step of updating your menu is letting your customers know what’s happening. To avoid confusion and possible anger, we advise you to do this before the new menu goes live. You might write a blog post, get on social media and post there, or put a notification on your homepage. 

Frame this change in a positive light. Instead of discussing food costs, which won’t resonate in the least with your customers, talk about how you’re changing your menu to better accommodate the changing and evolving tastes of your customers.

Where Do Food Trends Fit on Your Restaurant’s Menu?

Before we wrap up, we wanted to bring up a point that will definitely rise to the front of your mind as you work on your restaurant menu. That is, where do trends fit in?

Each year, food trends dominate grocery store shelves and restaurant menus. In 2019, people were all about ugly vegetables and fruits, kefir, and Burmese and Sri Lankan foods. In 2020, consumer tastes are leaning more towards plant-based foods and bar snacks.

If a new flavor or way of eating becomes the “it” thing, do you need to put it on your menu immediately? 

That depends on how often you update your menu. If you’re a seasonal restaurant, then there’s no harm in getting onboard the new food trend, as people will definitely have a hankering for it. If you can, make sure you’re using the food or ingredient in an inventive way so you stand out compared to everyone else.

Those establishments that update their menus yearly might want to be a little more cautious. You would hate to have chocolate-covered bacon stuck on your menu for the foreseeable future because you thought it would be a trend and it was only a dud.

It’s hard to say what the staying power of a food trend will be. Some stick around for years and others for weeks after they get a bit played out. Hopping onboard a food trend can pay off if it’s viable, but if the trend fizzles out, then your involvement can just as easily backfire.

If you do decide to get trendy with your restaurant’s menu, make sure that’s not at the expense of the classics. For instance, cheeseburgers with donut buns were really popular for a while. You could put something like that on the menu, but don’t stop selling regular cheeseburgers too. After all, not every customer will care about food trends!

Conclusion

As a restaurant owner, you should aim to update your menu at least once a year or two four times a year if your establishment is seasonal. When deciding which dishes to keep, use food costs and consumer preferences to guide you. Best of luck! 

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