Updated: Jun 21
By Jensen Cummings
A menu is the fundamental tool that restaurants use to sell their product. Is it merely the Sears catalog or the sales brochure or the classifieds ad of the food world? Sometimes it feels like it is. Yet, it cannot be just a list of food. It must be more. It must tell a compelling story and entice not just that one transaction; it must inspire all future sales as well.
Menu descriptions have gone through many iterations over the years. You’ve seen these, “Chicken breast pounded and breaded, deep fired. Broccoli sautéed in garlic, butter and topped with Parmesan cheese. Finished with rosemary mustard black pepper cream sauce.” Or this one, “young bird roulade | burnt breadcrumb | broccoli leaf | black mustard bubbles.”
I appreciate the former’s attempt to be descriptive, but I don’t need to know how it’s cooked. I want to know why I should care. The overcorrection to saying as little as possible in the latter, I appreciate the simplicity and the creativity, yet I want to know what I’m getting myself into.
We must think about the menu as a piece of restaurant marketing content. As a powerful storytelling medium. Otherwise, we are self-commoditizing our product and telling restaurant customers that we are only as valuable as what’s on the plate; and restaurants have the opportunity, and necessity for the success of their businesses, to offer so much more.
Menu descriptions have become even more crucial now that not all potential customers are dining-in. It is easier to explain away any menu confusion when customers have butts in seats and a server to guide them through the experience they are getting. The vulnerability is the fact that the overwhelming majority of decisions to dine (dine-in, carry out, or delivery) are made in the digital landscape, via a restaurant’s website, social media, delivery apps, review sites, etc. Its time restaurant owners fathom how customers actually engage with their menu and make purchasing decisions. From there it is your job to get creative and entice that first sale and every future sale through the story you tell on your restaurant’s menu, in all its firms and locations (physical and digital).
This process is made more complicated by the interface of the menus on mobile websites and third-party apps. Your restaurant’s menu must be simple enough to fit into a vertical stack on mobile, so a customer doesn’t have to scroll for three minutes just go through the damn thing. It must organized in a way so that your most popular dishes (and/or the most profitable dishes) are listed first, not twelfth. This is a major shift in mindset and approach from our old school paper menu compositions. The “F” and “Z” pattern design of paper menus that we were all taught, doesn’t play in a digital landscape.
To take your approach to menu storytelling even further, if you can’t write a 250-word article about every dish on your restaurant’s menu, why the fuck is it on your menu? You are likely just hype chasing. Don’t get caught up in that race to the bottom. This is the challenge that every restaurant owner, every chef, every bartender should take on to tell a better Menu Story. Inspire us as you have been inspired to create these menu items. Tell a story that is personal, unique, and makes us crave what you’re offering. Take us on a journey “back home,” to a childhood memory, or to a magical place we’ve never been, and move us to an emotional state that only food can transport us to.
Check out the What’s A Handmade Puff episode (audio podcast) with Eric Davies of Puff Truck Pizza as he and Chef Jensen get into Get Clear on What’s On The Menu and build a menu story for their signature Handmade Puff.
Basic utility is something that can be commoditized, replicated and replaced easily. Existing business owners want partners that dig in with them. 7shifts brings value through direct support to thousands of restaurants and over 400,000 employees. It’s their ability to scale one-on-one relationships that makes Best Served thrilled to have 7shifts underwrite Best Served New.
Jensen Cummings is a fifth-generation Chef & Certified Cicerone based in Denver, CO. His brands’ Best Served Creative and Best Served Podcast exist solely to unlock and amplify the worth and work of those who feed their community. From chefs to restaurant pros to farmers and every one in between, this work manifests with storytelling media, coaching, and strategy meant to acknowledge and empower people to do what they were meant to do. He is committed to hustle and communicate everyday to serve this mission. When he’s not out building a new model for restaurants that’s equitable, profitable, and sustainable, he’s spending precious time as a husband, a father, movie buff, beer nerd, and fan of the LA Dodgers.