Eight rules to creating a menu for recession-stricken customers

By Diane Chiasson

Everyone in the restaurant industry knows that your menu is your most important marketing tool. What’s on your menu – whether it’s online, a brochure in the mail or regular foot traffice – will either convince potential customers to walk into your restaurant … or keep walking.

But before you rip up your existing menu and send a new one to the printers, take the time to research what your customers have been eating and drinking at your restaurant in the past few months, and see if there have been any significant changes in what they have been ordering since the recession started.

You might notice that your $30.00 steak entrée is not selling as well as it used to, or that your $4.00 bowl of soup is suddenly a lot more popular.  Now that our economy isn’t faring so well, customers are tightening their purse strings and paying a lot more attention to menu prices.

Here are a few pointers to consider before you re-engineer your menu to cater to your recession-stricken customers:

1. Offer more affordable appetizer options

Customers are probably more inclined to skip ordering an appetizer and move straight to an entrée in order to save money – but they might be convinced to select an appetizer if there were something on the menu that was less than $5.00.

Consider offering items that have relatively low food cost like onion rings, a small bowl of homemade soup, a half order of chicken wings or nachos, etc.

2. Offer half-portions for entrées

On the flip side, customers might be inclined to only order an appetizer and skip the entrée altogether, especially if your restaurant is known for its large portions. Consider offering customers the option of ordering a half-portion of an entrée for a little more than half the price.

3. Offer prix-fixe meals

By offering a prix-fixe meal, or allowing customers to pick from a selection of appetizers, entrées and desserts for a set price, everyone wins. Your customers end up buying a three-course meal, which they probably would not have ordered otherwise, but walk away feeling like they got a great deal.

4. Highlight profitable and signature dishes

Use borders and shaded boxes, or increase the size of the words to attract attention to your most profitable or signature items. Your menu should always be written in lower-case letters, with no more than three distinct styles of font. Also, try not to incorporate more than three colours in your menu, and make sure those three colours relate to your brand and image.

5. Offer a separate dessert menu

Entice your customers to order dessert by keeping dessert tent cards on the table highlighting a specific dessert item, like a special dessert for two that your restaurant offers. Research has proven that by keeping desserts and specialty drinks on separate menu cards, sales for those items have been much higher.

Also offer mini desserts so that your customers can either order a variety of them to taste and sample, or at least one rather than none.

6. Include a children’s menu

For many families with children, the top draw to a restaurant is whether or not that particular restaurant offers a kids’ menu. Many parents do not feel it is worthwhile to pay full price for a dish that their child may not like or finish.

Be sure to offer a wide variety of choices including healthy items like veggie sticks and dip, steamed broccoli, baked fish, grilled chicken breast or rice, and some fun favourites like pizza, burgers and chicken fingers. Make sure that the kids’ menu is priced reasonably, and always include a drink, a dessert and a treat in the meal.

7. Keep your price increments unnoticeable

During a recession, it is very tempting for restaurant operators to increase prices to make up for some lost business.  If this is your situation, try to keep your price increments small and unnoticeable.  Another strategy is to lower the prices on your food items, while raising prices on your drinks menu. This way, you can attract more customers in the door with attractive food menu prices, but generate the same average check sales with the drinks.

Try not to use dollar signs on your menu, and keep the price embedded in the food description paragraph, as opposed to a price list. This helps to keep customers focused on the different menu options, rather than on the different costs.

8.  Make sure your staff knows the menu inside and out

A good menu is most effective when combined with well-trained and knowledgeable staff. Your staff should be able to recite your menu from cover to cover, and are aware of all the extra sides and options that they can sell and upsell. Every staff member should also have the opportunity to try every item on your menu so that they can help undecided customers make good decisions. Your servers should also be able to answer any possible question a customer might have about your menu.

About the author:

Diane Chiasson, FCSI, President of Chiasson Consultants Inc., has been helping foodservice, hospitality and retail operators increase sales for over 25 years. She is recognized as the industry leader in providing innovative and revenue-increasing foodservice and retail merchandising programs, interior design, branding, menu engineering, marketing and promotional campaigns, and much more. Contact her at 416-926-1338, toll-free at 1-888-926-6655 or, or visit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *