4 Things You Didn't Know About Successful Menus

4 Things You Didn't Know About Successful Menus

So you’re opening a restaurant……what’s on the menu?

Successful menus use formulas to drive profit and these formulas are essential to creating a winning business.

1. Don’t try and reinvent the wheel. Most successful restaurants are executing and imitating the same dishes.

Execution is all that is required, and originality plays a small part in most restaurants. Just “stick to the knitting”.

In an early lecture by Mark McEwan when I was an apprentice, he said something very poignant that I will

always remember. It went something like this: A lot of young chefs and restauranteurs think you have to

reinvent the wheel and create a whole menu full of new and original ideas and dishes. The reality is that our cuisine and our menus are usually about 90% imitation and only about 10% origination.

While in school that year at The Stratford Chefs School, the infamous founder and lecturer from Rundles restaurant in Stratford, James Morris added a second piece of advice.; He said “Tim ……if you can master the classics, the people will fall to their knees in front of you.”

It was these two philosophies that helped me come to the realization that the execution of your menu is more important than coming up with the next food trend. And after all, most trends are actually fads!!I

To summarize, its not about coming up with a new menu concept or item that keeps them coming back, its about banging out perfectly executed items time and time again.

2. Menu engineering is a science. Learn to engineer your menu for profits based on your sales and POS reports.

Profit analysis, linked with sales analysis can play an important role in many restaurants menu planning. You not only have to have successful and delicious items, you have to have profitable ones as well!

For instance if your least profitable dish sells the most you have big problems. The customers may like a certain dish, but if its not making you any money, take it off the menu! You have to have a smart and profit driven menu in order to succeed in today’s market.

A good POS (point of sale) system allows you to pull numbers and know exactly the amounts of items sold. Good costing sheets and tracking systems allow you to know how much things are costing you precisely. Do a menu audit often. As you graph and analyze your data, identify the sorts of items you are selling and recreate them to be profitable.

The food-service industry has its own terms to describe the performance of a menu item and they can be helpful to keep in mind as you re-engineer your menu. You may hear the following used from time to time:

  1. Plough horses: these are the items that have high sales, but also high costs.

  2. Dogs: these are the items with low sales, and high costs. We try to replace and avoid these items.

  3. Puzzlers: these are the items with low sales, but also have low costs. Finding a way to jazz these up and increase sales if a good idea.

  4. Stars: items with high sales and low costs are stars. We want to keep these and make more of them!

Use language in your menu that is clear and descriptive. Whatever the concept of restaurant, one constant is that you have to guide the customer to order the items that are engineered to be profitable. This is accomplished in a variety of ways. Including

  1. Writing your menu with catch-words like: Local, Organic, Seasonal, Fresh, Triple A, Line-caught, Ocean-wise and others that apply to your specific menu.

  2. Enticing descriptives words including: Tender, Slow-cooked, Marbled, Hand-made

  3. Name local suppliers from the community: Joe’s Garden Patch, St.Jacob’s Market, Mike’s Corner Meat-Shoppe, and other community contributors.

  4. Highlighting certain menu items using colour, shading, and bold to draw the reader’s eye to the items you want to feature.

3. Menus must be written for your concept, price-point and demographic, NOT the whims of the chef!

Before you begin a menu, be clear on your concept, price-point (done through a pro-forma and business analysis) and demographics of the area. Often people try to force or make dishes on a menu when they are not a good fit. Know your customer base and your restaurants needs. Do not try to create dishes that please yourself or the critics. Always please the customer first!

Do not underestimate the obvious. Simple and popular items are good to have on your menu. Many diners are not adventurous and its not a bad idea to have a few “go-to” safe items on the menu. To keep it interesting. I often choose a simple item but add a twist or garnish that ties in the concept or theme of the restaurant.

An Example of good menu planning:

In one restaurant I created a Ceasar salad appetizer, and called it Lemon Caesar. We jazzed up the dressing with extra lemon juice and made the croutons with lemon pepper. It was simple classic dressed up to be interesting and enticing, yet easy to make and serve. It sold like crazy. The price-point was high and the food-cost was low. It made crazy money and that’s always a good thing! 

An example of bad menu planning:

I once took over a restaurant kitchen where the operator had put in place an all you can eat pasta menu. You could choose your sauce ( 4 kinds) and choose your noodle ( 4 kinds ) and add toppings (as many as pizza !) . Sounds great right? Not so fast. Each order was 3 times as long as it needed to be. It created a myriad of different combinations which slowed down the chefs and the service. The result was confusion, poor service, disgruntled diners, a super-high food cost and a huge amount of waste.

4. Your menu has to match your team and your facility. What your kitchen and staff can handle are a crucial consideration.

Write a menu for your team and facility. It is important to make a menu that can be carried out day-in, day-out by your staff, and that proper equipment is in place. Train your employees to recommend the most profitable items. Its the job of the restauranteur to make sure that the most profitable items are well executed and delicious.


  1. Do not have several deep fried items on the menu with no deep fryer or make shift equipment.

  2. Do not have excessive smoked items with a tiny smoker, because you are only going to create problems.

  3. Do not make a huge menu, with limited or small facilities and without the right layout and equipment in place to execute efficiently.

All too often, a less experienced chef may attempt to execute complicated dishes that the team cannot handle because they are just too ambitious for the facilities you have at hand! Perform within your capabilities, and master the classics!

And when in doubt, call a restaurant consultant!

Well written menus may be the single most important factor contributing the the long-term success of a restaurant. Tim Halley can work with you and your team to create a menu that makes you money!

Until next time…


Tim Circle headshot.jpg

Tim Halley is an Executive Chef & Restaurant Consultant who has been leading restaurants to excellence for over 30 years.  He consults, cooks, and writes with passion, and he lives with his wife and children near Toronto, Canada.

Tim is available to Consult for your business anywhere in North America.


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