The Business of Designing Menus

December 12, 2014


When Toronto-based graphic designer Ashley Howell started her own freelance business, Avid Creative, earlier this year, she knew she had to identify a niche market in order to succeed.


“In terms of the freelance industry, it’s a bit swamped,” she says. Her previous gig working as a designer at sports-facility chain Canlan Ice Sports had her working with a food and beverage marketing manager to overhaul the in-house restaurant menu by assessing costs and what items did well in various regions.


“When I did this project with them, it made me realize that this was what I wanted to get into,” Howell says. “I did more research on the psychology of menus, and the idea of how people read menus is very intriguing. When people read menus, there are hot spots, and you want to put high-profit items into those hot spots.”


She calls this business “menu engineering,” and points to a breakdown of the Balthazar Restaurant menu on the New York magazine website as a good example of what she means.


“Menu engineering psychologically sways customers into buying what you want them to buy,” she explains.


To analyze what to include on a menu, Howell goes through every item on a line-by-line basis to figure out what the best-sellers and specialty items are, and divides them into four categories: high popularity/low margin, high popularity/high marging, low popularity/low margin and low popularity/high margin. She then distributes these items throughout the menu based on their desired visibility.




She’s also got a good grasp on what doesn’t work as well in menu design. “Currently, I see a lot of people using dollar signs, which is about the worst thing you can do. When [the customer] sees a dollar sign next to a price, psychologically they see the price as higher than what it is,” Howell says. “Another thing is having a list of prices in a column on the right-hand side — that’s the general way of designing a menu. I suggest having prices inset into the description of the items. It will make the person read the item first.”


After being entirely self-taught on the subject, Howell is still growing her fledgling business. She counts Mucho Burrito as one of her freelance clients, and has completed several concept designs for menus to attract new business. She's also created a "Design for Food and Drink" document to inform potential clients about the value of menu design on their ROI.


“There are a lot of independent restaurants where budget is a huge concern, but they want to get their names out there and have a good design on their menu,” she says of her new market. “We’re in a food revolution right now […] everyone’s becoming a lot more concerned with what they’re eating.”





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