Why creating a story with your menu makes a difference

By Ralph Zoontjens

The term “food marketing” may conjure images of billboards or TV ads, but the restaurant menu is one of the most important touchpoints to engage your customers and keep them coming back.

For the past two years, food marketing has been dominated by pandemic-related risk management, but now, restaurants have the freedom to focus on what they can offer customers. With COVID-19 fading and people returning to restaurants, now is the right moment to revamp your brand.

Telling a coherent story across all touchpoints will make for a valuable experience and make customers want to keep dining at your restaurant again and again.

How to engage your customers

Having comfortable chairs, friendly staff, great food, and well-decorated walls isn’t enough anymore for restaurant businesses to establish a reliable customer base. People expect a place that brings them a memorable, unique experience that connects to the way they want to live life.

While how to do this may not be immediately obvious, the answer is as simple as it is ancient: storytelling.

Dining is a fundamentally human experience where we deeply get to know each other, across all stages of life, while enjoying a multisensory delight.

By letting your restaurant tell a story, it becomes part of that human presence rather than just being a restaurant. The best experience design revolves around people, so make sure you understand your customers and make them part of the process.

How to choose the story

The story your company tells needs to appeal to your target audience. This can include a literal story you include in your menu, or it can be an implied narrative told through design elements like green leaves and veggies or a stylized slice of pizza.

If you’re in a neighbourhood that lives and breathes family values, or if those are the customers you want to attract, a story about the owners probably will be effective. Placing this story on the menu where your customers will read it invites them to become part of that story.

If environmental consciousness is high on the agenda, emphasize your restaurant’s supply-chain ecosystem with keywords like “authenticity”, “locally grown”, and “farm-to-table”. Detail your restaurant’s commitment to sustainability or carbon neutrality. This makes your customers part of that narrative of environmental responsibility.

If there’s little entertainment for children in the area, consider creating a magical fantasy experience just for them. A children’s menu can include word puzzles and other games featuring characters specific to your brand. These characters’ narratives will engage children, making them want to return and bring their parents with them.

A fine dining atmosphere is also not for everyone, with menus in pearl-gloss finish and swooping lettering to describe 65 French wines. Rather than trying to prescribe what dining should be, it’s better to fit it to the existing audience.

With a coherent story, you simplify the customer experience across all touchpoints. Appealing to people’s emotions and intellects from the moment they enter to the return home will build customer loyalty.

Consider integrating these storytelling elements into events that you advertise on the menu, like a weekly music performance, open-mic night, quiz night, a community gathering, cooking workshop, or even something very simple like a QR code that leads to your website.

Anything that reinforces that your restaurant is a community hub, a family legacy, an environmentally or socially conscious establishment, or a playland for kids will continue the narrative established by your menu and other marketing material.

How to design your menu

First things first: a menu has to be simple, legible, and make people crave your dishes. But your story can add a layer of subtext to set the right mood and inject tasty bits of information. It will also serve to brand individual dishes.

A Stanford study has shown that the way food products are described matters greatly.

People are more prone to go for dishes like “dynamite chili” and “gangplank greens” than a menu that plainly states the ingredients. Dynamite is a great metaphor for the spiciness of the chili, and calling greens “gangplank” may add a swashbuckling flair that makes the dish more intriguing for children who would otherwise avoid it.

By carefully crafting the language of your menu, you give your customers a sense that these are more than the standard food options offered by other restaurants.

Look for inspiration in history, sports, travel, science, the countryside, jungle wildlife, nostalgia, movies, and anything else that fits the tone or theme of your restaurant.

Be careful when designing your menu, as your goal is to affect your customers on a visceral and emotional level. Before running your own Photoshop creation through the inkjet printer in the back office, consult a professional design studio specializing in food industry clientele.

Nothing can undermine your efforts faster than a menu that underachieves artistically. Graphics become outdated quickly, and many of the stock options on the program you’re using may direct you down the wrong aesthetic path.

Instead of large images, eye-catching typography, and vibrant colour combinations, consider different shapes, innovative fabrication techniques, and special papers, textures, and finishes to set your menu apart.

In short, a well-designed menu should:

  • Appeal to the senses and emotions
  • Be clear
  • Be consistent with other marketing outlets
  • Be easy to clean
  • Provide links to social media, a website, or other ways to connect
  • Tell a relevant, interesting, or humorous story

However, before you go all out on creativity, consider what appeals specifically to your customers and what you are about.

Your menu is a valuable touchpoint to engage customers in your restaurant’s narrative. As the pandemic fades out, brands have the opportunity to make a new impact in their communication efforts, and you can start with the paper or the phone that your customers hold in their hands.

Ralph Zoontjens is a product designer with a master’s degree in Industrial Design from Eindhoven University of Technology, and a writer on topics that revolve around design and technology.