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How to Write Powerful Menu Descriptions That Increase Profits

The Expert: Gregg Rapp, Menu Engineer | September 2016

  • At most restaurants, menu descriptions are a lifeless list of ingredients
  • A good description adheres to a set of best practices, and you don’t have to be a writer to benefit from them
  • When written well, descriptions convey the soul of your restaurant and lead to higher profits
Image of a menu cover and writing pen

 

GOOD MENU DESCRIPTIONS LEAD TO HIGHER PROFITS

A very big problem I see with most restaurants is that they describe their menu items with a lifeless list of ingredients. This is unfortunate, because menu descriptions allow you to share the heart and soul of your restaurant with customers and can have a defining impact on a restaurant’s reputation and profits. They really are that important. In particular, they can positively impact your restaurant in the following ways:

1. Menu descriptions allow a restaurant to differentiate itself

Strong menu descriptions take a dish out of the realm of being a commodity and make it appear better than a similar dish being sold by a competitor across the street. A good description won’t compensate for bad food, of course, but when customers believe that you are offering something distinctive, something that they can’t get anywhere else, your restaurant reaps the benefits through increased traffic and guests’ perception that the dish’s price is more justified.

2. Good menu descriptions entice guests, leading to repeat business

When tempting language makes three entrees seem irresistible, customers will order one of them and possibly return two more times to try the other two on future visits.

3. Good menu descriptions lead guests to order more items at a given sitting

Customers typically spend just 90 seconds looking over the menu, and this time does not expand to accommodate any confusion caused by a poorly written menu. Good descriptions require less work (e.g., reading, searching) from the customer, and less confusion or searching during the item-selection process means customers have more time within those 90 seconds to find and add additional items to their order.

Now that you know the importance of how you present your restaurant’s offerings to the world, I will teach you how to describe them to your customers. All of the information I present applies to all types of food establishments, from high-end restaurants to hotdog stands to food trucks. And note that it is important to adjust the language you use to suit your particular audience. While reading, please keep in mind that each piece of information below addresses one or more of the three positive impacts listed above: it differentiates your dish, entices your customers to order your dish, and/or makes it easier for customers to find and order more of what they want.

 

HOW TO WRITE A MENU DESCRIPTION

Descriptions can be split into parts, and their order matters

A menu description can be split into three parts, and you should usually present them in the following order:

1. The name of the dish

2. The ingredients

Place the main ingredients of the dish first, starting with the most expensive and important ingredients (and make sure to include any that commonly cause allergic reactions). The reason for this is that guests read as little as they can when deciding what they want to order, and the main thing they want to know about your dish is what’s in it.

3. The “sell copy”

This phrase refers to language whose primary purpose is to sell the dish.

Example in the suggested order: 1 > 2 > 3
Chicken Pot Pie – Roast chicken, baby carrots, spring peas topped with grandma’s flakey pie crust.

To keep the menu from being monotonous, occasionally reverse the order of the second and third parts and place the “sell copy” before your ingredients. There is no rule dictating which dishes should have this less common presentation – just go with what you think makes the most sense in your situation.

Example in reverse order: 1 > 3 > 2
Chicken Pot Pie – Grandma’s flakey pie crust filled with roast chicken, baby carrots, and spring peas.

As you read on, you will learn how to optimize each part of a description. The topics presented below roughly follow the 1 > 2 > 3 order displayed above, but note that some of the advice can apply to more than one part of the description.

Don’t force customers to read the description

A dish’s name should clearly identify the dish so that guests don’t have to read the description in order to obtain this basic information. When customers can easily determine if they want to read further by just reading the name of the item, it saves them time. To achieve this level of clarity, you often must mention the specific item in the dish name. For instance, instead of writing “Joe’s Special” and then describing this mystery dish, you would write “Joe’s Lasagna Special,” which allows customers to quickly decide if they want more detail.

Reinforce how the item is categorized on the menu

When a menu has a section with a heading such as “Salad,” some think that it is OK to list dish names such as “Greek” and “Buffalo Chicken” under this heading because it will be obvious that both dishes are types of salads. Instead of relying on customers to always make this connection, make things easier for them by sprinkling the word “salad” into some of the dish titles in order to reinforce to customers that they are reading through the salad section: e.g., “Greek Salad” and “Buffalo Chicken Salad.” Not every dish within a given section has to include the section heading in its name, but seeing such obvious dish names frequently within a menu section makes it easier for customers to read through the menu and make decisions.

Add value to an ingredient by stating its geographic origin

When you add value to an ingredient, it is no longer just a commodity that everyone else has, and one way to do this is to inform guests of where the item came from. For example, the following descriptions of the same menu item add more value to the ingredient as you read from left to right:

Midwest Pork Chops > Iowa Pork Chops > Muscatine, Iowa, Pork Chops

As you move from left to right, the term before the ingredient “Pork Chops” gets increasingly specific (the Midwestern region of the U.S. contains the state of Iowa, and Iowa contains a city named Muscatine), and this further differentiates the dish vs. its more generic competition. To obtain such geographic information, you can ask vendors and distributors about the origins of the food that you buy, and if you are buying from local farms, you can include these locations in your descriptions. Most items you buy come from a specific farming area or small town, and the smaller the town, the more interesting the menu description.

Examples:
Strawberry Sorbet – Hidden Valley Fruit Farm strawberries, shortbread crumb, and cream.

Deviled Eggs – Baffoni Farm egg, bacon lardon, and crispy shallots.

Short Ribs – Soy-braised Blackbird Farm short ribs, shiitake and snap pea risotto.

This method of adding value allows you to avoid resorting to an uninspiring list of ingredients, and it can also easily be applied to dish names (the first part of the description).

Mention brand names

In addition to stating the geographical origin of your dish, if an ingredient is supplied by a well-known and respected brand, you can also mention the brand name in your descriptions. Adding a few brand names among your menu descriptions makes it appear that you are buying “the good stuff,” which in your guests’ minds raises the value of all your dishes.

Describe how unfamiliar ingredients taste

If you write something in a description that people don’t understand, they won’t order that item. Listing the name of an uncommon ingredient without any supporting information alienates the many people who are not familiar with it, and people in groups (think business lunches, people on dates, etc.) are often embarrassed to ask for clarification because it can make them look uncultured.

Graphic of a left quotation mark

If you write something in a description that people don’t understand, they won’t order that item.

You can overcome the pitfalls of listing an uncommon ingredient by including three pieces of information in your description:

1. The name of the ingredient
2. A description of how the ingredient tastes
3. The food category to which the ingredient belongs

For instance, by writing “buttery cacio bufala cheese,” you not only name an ingredient that not everyone is familiar with (cacio bufala), but you also let readers know that the uncommon ingredient is a type of cheese (the food category) and that it has a buttery taste. This description allows customers to be far more confident and comfortable when ordering a dish. Note that there is no correct order for these three pieces of information. Simply include all three of them and go with the order that makes sense in your situation.

Examples:
Shakshuka – Farm egg baked in sauce of sweet tomatoes, chiles, and smoky cumin.
(Category: Egg; Taste: Sweet

Blistered Shishito Peppers – Bite-sized mild peppers with grilled lemon and flake salt.
(Category: Peppers; Taste: Mild)

Provide a “backstory”

As I noted earlier, “sell copy” usually follows the ingredients in your menu descriptions, and it has the task of “selling” your items outside of any interest generated by the ingredients. An ingenious way to create this copy is to share the “backstory,” or history, behind the dish.

I don’t see this effective technique used in restaurants very often, and you don’t need to be a copywriter to generate such content. In fact, the best place to start is with the chef. In my experience, chefs are usually pressed for time and would much rather cook than write, so try to pull the backstory for each menu item out of the chef verbally while using a dictation device. You can then transcribe the comments and edit them down for inclusion in the menu description.

Here are some examples of the kind of content that you can generate from this exercise: The chef used this recipe for his own wedding reception. The recipe is a long-held family secret. The chef experienced this dish while on vacation. The chef’s grandmother created it. The length of time the item has been on the menu. Why the recipe is worthy of being on the menu vs. the many other options the chef could have chosen.

Note that the geographic origin of certain ingredients (a factor mentioned earlier in this article) can also be part of the backstory.

Examples:
Grandma Dot’s Kickin’ Cornbread – Sweet summer corn, stone-ground cornmeal, and a touch of jalapeno. Cornbread with a kick of personality – just like Grandma Dot.

South Street Chicken Wings – Smokey peach chipotle barbecue sauce, smothered crispy chicken wings. A summertime favorite for years at the South Street block party!

A backstory takes the dish out of the “same old, same old” realm. It gives your menu its own personality and allows the dish to stand on its own and become even more appealing. And remember that this method is as valid for a high-end, full-service restaurant as it is for a fast-food restaurant.

The backstory is critical when creating a description, and its importance extends beyond the menu. Having a written backstory behind a menu item also allows your servers to better understand the item, to be more confident in suggesting it, and to sell it better. In some cases a dish’s backstory can become a legend in your restaurant.

Use photographs with great caution

Using food photographs on your menu is a way to visually “describe” your menu dish. Guests like them because pictures allow them to avoid reading, and when used very sparingly (just one per menu page, for example) they can significantly increase sales of a given item.

That said, the use of photographs comes with large downsides. To start with, pictures cheapen a menu, which limits pricing flexibility. In addition, professional food photographs are often more perfect than reality, and when the dish arrives looking somewhat different, customers can be disappointed. Along the same lines, the unrealistic expectations built up by a professional photograph can extend into the realm of taste, and that’s definitely not something you want to compete against.

Use evocative language

Your menu descriptions should be more than just factually accurate. They should also create desire within the reader, and to do this your descriptions should engage readers’ imaginations so that they want to experience what they are reading about.

Examples (Uninspired)
• Pork Chop – Served with apple braised cabbage and jus.

• Chocolate Cake – Served with raspberries and whipped cream.

Rewritten Examples (Evocative)
• Wood-Fire-Grilled Pork Chop – Double-cut, bone-in Berkshire pork chop, sweet & sour braised cabbage, apple cider jus.

• 5-Layer Chocolate Cake – Espresso-soaked chocolate sponge cake, milk chocolate ganache filling, raspberry coulis, and fluffy whipped cream.

There are no inherently good or bad words to use in your descriptions; your choices depend on your particular situation and what you feel is the best reflection of what you are trying to accomplish.

Graphic of a left quotation mark

There are no inherently good or bad words to use in your descriptions…

Here is a list of words and phrases to help jump-start your creativity:

aromatic complex drizzled encrusted
fit for the gods grass-fed house-made infused
juiciness knead local meticulously
nosh organic pan-seared quintessential
roasted seasonal time-tested unbeatable
vibrant wild-caught yummy zesty

The importance of language is underscored by the following:

1. The financial impact of a well-worded menu description can be highly significant. In his book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, Professor Brian Wansink of Cornell University tells of a study he was involved in, in which a cafeteria attempting to enhance its image and sales rotated the same dishes for six weeks, alternating between basic and descriptive dish titles. The descriptive titles led to an impressive 27 percent increase in sales over their basic counterparts.

2. Language can impact a guest’s impression of how a dish tastes. No kidding. In the same study, participants reviewed the meals that used the descriptive dish titles more positively than the identical meals that used the basic titles.

Your words matter. Take them seriously.

Adjust the length of your descriptions to your advantage

There is no ideal length for a description, but here is some guidance on this topic:

1. Guests spend a limited amount of time reading the menu, so be practical.

2. Ask yourself: Are your hamburgers described in more detail than your steaks? Doesn’t it make sense to spend more time describing the steaks rather than the burgers?

Graphic of a left quotation mark

…the length of a description should reflect an item’s importance…

In other words, the length of a description should reflect an item’s importance, so save your longest descriptions for the most popular and profitable dishes and limit other dishes to more basic descriptions. Failure to follow this rule is the most common problem I see when it comes to menu descriptions, and it is relatively easy to fix.

When writing in two languages, make them easy to navigate

When your audience does not share a common language, you can reduce the amount of time that guests spend searching through your menu by having two separate menus (one in language A and the other in language B) or by creating graphic cues that allow guests to easily navigate to their desired language – two possibilities include distinguishing the languages through font color or italic text.

Write your own descriptions

You should use a proofreader after you put your menu together in order to catch mistakes, but I advise against hiring a writer or an advertising team to write your descriptions. Doing so can result in a menu that is unrecognizable to the chef who created the dishes because outside writers may not understand the heart and soul of the restaurant. Instead, the operator or person who put the menu together is the right person for the job.

Keeping the writing in-house can help give the menu a much desired personality – and note that this personality is more important than perfect grammar. I will often joke that if you misspell a word on your menu, just make sure that you do so three times so that it “becomes” a word.

Graphic of a left quotation mark

…I advise against hiring a writer or an advertising team to write your descriptions.

Menu descriptions should come from your heart and soul, and they should feel right to you. Both guests and workers will be able to spot a contrived menu, and that negative impression will end up hurting your establishment.

Because of their larger employee base, chain restaurants must try harder to find their heart and soul when writing menu descriptions. Also, for a franchise organization, if the franchisees don’t understand the descriptions, they won’t believe in them. These issues are beyond the scope of this article, but note that the problems created by having many locations to work with are not insurmountable.


PUTTING MENU DESCRIPTIONS IN CONTEXT

Optimizing your menu descriptions is one of many ways to generate higher profits from your menu, and the practice falls under the broader topic of menu engineering, which is the study of the profitability and popularity of menu items and how these two factors influence the placement of these items on a menu. Menu engineering covers everything from determining which items to display on a menu, to the optimal place on a menu to display these items, to how many dishes to display and in what order. To learn more about this broader topic you can read our in-depth menu engineering article here.

 

This article is based on a series of interviews that Menu Cover Depot conducted with California-based menu engineer Gregg Rapp.

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About the expert: Gregg Rapp, Menu Engineer

Gregg Rapp Headshot

Gregg Rapp is a menu engineer who has helped restaurants create more profitable menus for the past 30-plus years. He has worked with the country’s largest restaurant chains, appeared twice on NBC’s Today Show, and been featured on ABC’s Good Morning America and CBS Sunday Morning. He has also been featured in Time Magazine, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Inc. Magazine, Success, and Entrepreneur.

He is available to work with restaurants. To learn more about him: