Fundamentals of Menu Design

May 24, 2022

Proper placement of offerings on a restaurant menu is imperative as this placement plays a critical role in how customers order. Therefore, when designing a menu, it’s imperative that restauranters invest the requisite time and effort into selecting an appropriate design. However, before beginning the design process, one must understand the contribution margin for each item and how each contributes to the bottom line. The following guidance provides some key recommendations for restaurant operators to consider when approaching menu design as well as some helpful training tips to improve their serving staff.

Understand Ideal Placement – When opening a standard two or three-fold menu, a customer’s eyes generally begin with the middle of the page. From there, they tend to move to the top right and then to the top left. This triangular path is commonly known as the “golden triangle”. Knowledge of the golden triangle is important as it refers to some very valuable territory when it comes to menu item placement.  As such, operators should consider placing high-margin, leader dishes at the center and upper right-hand corner of the menu; proper menu placement can serve as a silent salesperson.

Use Red Herring’s – When designing the menu, consider placing lower-priced, high-profit margin items next to higher-priced items. By placing higher-end offerings below these lower-priced options, guests who order the more “economical” items will feel they’ve found a deal, while your restaurant realizes a higher profit sale.

Remember the Magic Number Seven – Consider limiting each section of the menu to no more than seven items.  Why?  Any more than seven items can create anxiety and frustration for the consumer, which is also known as the “paradox of choice”. When this occurs, consumers will either default to something they’ve ordered before or, order the cheapest option so they don’t overpay for something they may not like.

Use Color – Consumers buy with their eyes and one of the main factors that entice reaction is color. As such, certain colors on your menu can be strong drivers in connection with purchasing decisions. Red entices action and passion and can be used to motivate. Orange is an appetite stimulator and should be used with impulse items. Yellow attracts attention (think of caution lights) so, if you’re looking to capture a consumer’s attention, this color should work well. Green signals freshness and should be used for salads and healthier options.

Be Descriptive – A key opportunity to showcase and promote your menu offerings, especially for signature items, lies in the description listed next to it. Menu items that have distinct, unique titles and descriptions have been linked to exponential sales increases. For example, “Papa Mario’s Famous Beef Enchiladas” can serve as a more enticing and appetizing option compared to the simple “beef enchiladas”.  There are many options to differentiate menu items. Operators should consider distinguishing factors around taste, preparation, nostalgia, geography, texture, and brand when describing some (or all) menu items.

Column Pricing and Dollar Sign – Many restaurants design their menus with the price on the far-right hand side. While this works for some restaurants, this placement can cause consumers to seek out the lower priced option instead of ordering the item they really want. As such, for restaurants that don’t emphasize low prices, consider eliminating decimals as they can sometimes make numbers look larger and can lead consumers to spend less. Also, consider eliminating the dollar sign as research shows that consumers that are given the numeral-only menu spend significantly more than those who receive a menu with prices that show a dollar sign.

Consider Separate Menus – Offering separate menus for drinks, appetizers, entrees, and desserts keeps the consumer engaged and allows your entity to segment, organize, and upsell. This methodology can also be used to eliminate the “paradox of choice” issue that many diners experience.

The Touch – Appealing to the consumer’s eyes and appetite is only one part of the equation. Restaurant operators should also consider how the size, ease of use, and texture of their menus will resonate with the consumer. For instance, a high-end restaurant menu should have a distinct difference in presentation and feel compared to the local diner.  Additionally, QR codes should continue to be offered as some consumers will still prefer contactless options.

Train Your Staff – One of the most important contributing factors in your organization’s sales and profits is your serving staff. Take the time to train your staff on those items that are high-profit margin, along with those that drive an overall positive customer experience. Either can go a long way with creating profits and brand loyalty. Furthermore, educating your training staff on what these items are can help them make recommendations that are favorable to your organization.


Your menu design has more power than you may think.  Small changes in design, presentation, and description can go a long way in driving profits.  In addition, training your staff on what items to promote and suggest as a differentiating factor can also impact the bottom line. To learn more about how the aforementioned concepts can impact your restaurant entity, please contact Tim Reynolds at 828.322.2070 or at