When you look at a restaurant menu, what do you see? Usually, there’s a list of food items grouped by category and arranged in an orderly fashion. Yet you won’t see the careful planning, cost-benefit analysis, and creative marketing that transforms a list of food items into a profit-generating, customer-attracting, restaurant menu.
There’s a word for all of that invisible work: menu engineering.
For a ghost kitchen, the process of menu engineering includes choosing how to price each item, what ingredients to use, presentation, and so much more. If you’re in the restaurant business and you’re looking to provide your customers with more options and better service, all while maximizing your ghost kitchen’s menu potential, read on. In this guide, we’ll cover our top tips on menu engineering.
Identify what works (and what doesn't) on your menu
What sells and what sits on the shelf? More than likely, you already know your most in-demand items. But if you’re a little unsure about the best sellers coming out of your kitchen, it helps to take a look through your available data.
It’s helpful to look at the top-selling menu items to create an effective menu design. Beyond that, it’s also useful to explore other profitability metrics, including:
Time of sale – Is one item popular at lunch but completely ignored at dinner time? Are your customers ordering one dish more than others after 10:00 pm? Sales times provide useful data points to help you determine what stays on the menu and how you choose to operate your kitchen. Perhaps offering separate menus at different times of the day could help you plan your inventory.
Ticket-time – From when the initial order is received to the time it’s all boxed up - how long does it take to get each item out of the door? Faster turnover means more orders filled and more sales. For high-volume ghost kitchens, speed is integral to success. Time-intensive dishes with low demand might drag down your overall profitability.
Seasonal popularity – Not selling a lot of salads throughout the winter months? Watching your sandwich sales shrink during the spring? Consider tracking sales of items throughout the year. The data you gather can help inform which items to keep year-round, and which might be better as seasonal specials.
How to price your menu items
When you first determined the sweet spot of each dish’s initial selling price, you probably broke down each menu item's cost by both ingredients and labor, then decided on pricing from those numbers.
However, rising food and labor costs may have changed your total food cost and profit margins—and up-to-date numbers are essential for deciding each menu item’s price. Running a new profit margin calculation should give you a clearer picture of your most and least profitable items.
Remember that the menu engineering process is not only about eliminating the least profitable items on your menu. It’s also important to consider cohesiveness when crafting your menu pricing strategy and performing menu analysis. A menu item may be valuable and capable of high profitability because of its relationship with other menu items. For example:
Consider Which items are ordered together - Saucy sides, sugary desserts, and thirst-quenching beverages may not be your best profit makers by themselves, but they may be essential to driving up the sale of other items that have low profitability or low popularity.
Consider lowering the price on popular items - Is there an eye-catching menu item that has gained high popularity and customers can’t stop talking about? Whether you’re serving up an extravagant burger, a never-before-seen noodle dish, or an award-winning entree, the attention-grabbing qualities of these items might be enough to warrant a lower profit margin in exchange for even more orders.
Exploring new food concepts
A successful ghost kitchen brings unique flavors to its customers with speed and convenience. When engineering your menu, identify the various food concepts your business offers and consider consolidating or expanding.
Food concepts might include:
• Chicago-style pizza
• Greek street food
If you already operate a ghost kitchen, it’s likely that you have already explored several possible food concepts – that’s what a good restaurant owner does! When engineering your overall menu and individual menu items, take the time to evaluate the benefits of expanding the number of food concepts your ghost kitchen offers.
That includes thinking about:
Customer reach – The more you offer, the greater your customer reach. Offer an expansive menu of various cultures or cooking styles, and you can expect a wider and more diverse customer base. Additionally, craft a menu that offers food choices for people with various dietary restrictions (vegetarian, vegan) to cater to an even larger audience.
Complementary ingredients – Different dishes require vastly different ingredients. From spices to localized produce, sourcing these products and keeping them on-hand is one of the more difficult aspects of a multi-concept menu. Lower your costs and simplify your recipes by choosing menu items and food concepts that share ingredients. Eliminate waste and explore the complementary nature of different cuisines.
Quality vs. quantity – No matter what food concepts or specific menu item you add or remove from your menu, quality should always be a priority. Never sacrifice the flavor of your menu for a few more options. A delicious and consistent food experience will bring customers back time and time again.
Marketing your menu
A winning menu will only translate into a profit-generating business if you let the public know about it. Market your menu with the same diligence and creativity you used to create the menu itself.
While traditional restaurants have the advantage of in-house advertisements and physical locations, your ghost kitchen’s marketing strategy will be almost entirely digital. Use the flexibility of the digital world to your advantage when crafting your marketing materials.
The top points to focus on when marketing your engineered menu include:
Images – Few things can get your customers’ stomachs rumbling like high-quality pictures of your dishes. Create an appetizing visual to accompany every item on your menu and post these pictures to your social media profiles. The more eyes on your feed, the more people you can feed.
Packaging – Show customers what your brand is all about before they even take a bite. The packaging should not only be practical (keeping food fresh and safe during delivery), but it should also be striking, engaging, and memorable. Build brand recognition by taking time to craft packaging that your customers will remember and want to post on their own Instagrams.
Words – It’s not just about how it looks; it’s about what you say. Think about the difference between describing an item as a “Pepperoni Pizza,” versus a pie featuring “Aged Italian prosciutto, house-made marinara, aged mozzarella, and pecorino.” You can paint a picture with your item descriptions and captions, so your words should live up to your foods’ flavors.
Label your items for easy discovery
How will your potential customers discover your menu? Whether they’re searching through their favorite delivery app or looking for food options based on location, the best way to ensure you pop up on their radar is through digital tags and online categorization.
This is where your engineered menu can really shine.
Consider the following aspects of tagging and categorizing your menu:
Cuisine or culture – Highlight the cultures and countries that have inspired your recipes – and remember to be specific. Tag both the larger categories your menu could fit under along with the more specialized categories. A menu can fall under several categories at once, and you’ll have more opportunities to reach new customers when you branch out.
Food type – Chicken, breakfast, baked goods— In the restaurant industry, customers often have a specific craving for a type of food. Make it easy for them by clearly labeling the variety of menu offerings for maximum searchability.
Dietary options – More than ever, people are highly conscious of the food they put in their bodies. Guide your customers toward the menu items that might fit their particular dietary needs. This can include restrictions like gluten-free or vegetarian as well as specific diet types like keto or paleo.
Digital menu item tags allow you to track ordering trends based on certain grouped menu items. For example, you can group similar menu items that are seasonal and analyze the sales trends for these items. By tagging your menu items, you can easily review the data to better understand which menu items to focus on to improve profits.
Tips to simplify for top-notch service
Menu engineering for ghost kitchens is about more than the products offered—it’s also about the process of crafting delicious food and getting it to customers. While third-party delivery apps may assist in the transit of food, it’s important for restaurant owners or restaurant operators to set their customers up for success by carefully planning the way their food is prepared and packaged.
Consider the following aspects of your kitchen’s design that will directly impact your menu and your overall profits:
Delivery area – Let’s face it, even with modern packaging, super-efficient drivers, and the best-insulated delivery bags – food can only go so far. Eventually, all food will get cold, soggy, and lose the original taste. Assess your delivery area to ensure that your food shows up to your customers as intended.
Operating hours – Are you offering a great late-night menu but closing before the late-night rush? Are the first few hours of operation going by without a single order? Adjust your operating hours to align with your menu offerings and order trends.
Menu size – As you finalize your menu, focus on finding a balance between variety and consistency – and don’t overthink it. Too many (or too few) items can cause a slow-down of business or dissatisfied customers, and a more complicated menu can be a burden on your team.
Redefine your menu with CloudKitchens
Get inspired as you create your menu. If you create your menu from inspiration, it’ll also inspire your team and your customers. Don’t forget that menu engineering is equal parts art and science, so leave room for creativity and bold ideas.
Speaking of bold, if you’re ready for a new start for your restaurant business, it’s time to visit CloudKitchens.
With CloudKitchens you can expand your audience, streamline your business, minimize costs, and be running a fully-operational ghost kitchen in as little as one month. If you’re ready to optimize and revolutionize your restaurant, CloudKitchens makes it simple. Explore our tech and tour a kitchen today.
1 Restaurant Owner. Menu Engineering. https://www.restaurantowner.com/public/Menu-Engineering-System.cfm
2 FSR Magazine. Menu Engineering 101 for Full-Service Restaurants. https://www.fsrmagazine.com/expert-takes/menu-engineering-101-full-service-restaurants
3 National Restaurant Association. Restaurants find innovative ways to promote their brands and expand online menu offerings. https://restaurant.org/education-and-resources/resource-library/restaurants-find-innovative-ways-to-promote-their-brands-and-expand-online-menu-offerings/
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