Menu engineering: how to make your menu work harder

menu engineering how to make your menu work harder

The testing. The tweaking. The long hours. The costing. The portioning. The plating. The arguments. New menus are a lot of hard work and sometimes it can all feel like it is for nothing. Your favourite dishes don’t seem to get ordered, instead the crowd pleasers keep on rolling in. Why is that?

Often the way chefs put together menus is via a labour of love. Their research and inspiration leads them to create a menu of items that they love to eat and want to cook. The dishes are an expression of the flavours and trends that they are enjoying at the time.

Other times, the menu is held hostage by food budgets and other restraints. In a perfect world, both creativity and profit work together on a menu – alas, the kitchen is not the perfect world, far from it!

This is where the concept of Menu Engineering comes in. Menu engineering is study of how popular and profitable certain menu items are, and then how this should influence where on your physical menu they appear. The aim of the exercise is to maximize the amount of money made on each guest’s order.

When the time and effort is put in, well-executed menu engineering can increase profits by 10-15%.

The process can be broken down into four steps:

  1. Cost your menu
  2. Categorise menu items by profit and popularity
  3. Design your menu
  4. Test it


Costing your menu

This requires you to break down each item into the individual ingredients and determining the dollar and cents cost of each of them. The best way to do this is to consider the portion or weight of each ingredient that goes into your dish and then look at its per weight cost.

This is time-consuming process, but it is absolutely essential if you want to understand how much money you’re really making (or losing).

The ever-popular hamburger is a commonly engineered dish on Australian menus.


Categorising by profit and popularity

Menus are usually already split into their own categories, like Starters, Seconds, Mains and Desserts. This is a good place to start. Then looking at each of these areas, you can put the items into their own little sections, like proteins, seafoods, vegetarian. This will make sure you’re not comparing apples and oranges. Using an excel spreadsheet to do this is a good idea, as you can then add in the cost of making the item against what you are charging.

Once you have all the items split up into categories and sections, you will start to see which are high profit items and which aren’t. Now, consider which of these are the most popular divide them up into four buckets.

STARS – High profit and high popularity

These are the items you want to highlight on your menu.

VETERANS – Low profit and high popularity

Maybe you need to rework the portion for these and make them more profitable? Consider changing out an expensive ingredient for something similar and cheaper.

ROOKIES – High profit and low popularity

Ask your floor staff to push these items or request feedback from your customers on whether they liked it. Perhaps there is an adjustment you can make that will make it a more popular dish.

BENCH – Low profit and low popularity

It doesn’t look good for these guys. How badly do they need to be on the menu?


From here you should be able to determine which menu items are worthwhile and which need to go, or need some work.


Designing your menu

Whether you need to get your graphic designer or can put it together yourself, is up to you. This step requires you to carefully plan out where each item will appear.

Here are some tips.

  • Avoid lining all your prices up in a row. The customer will only compare prices then.
  • Highlight the STARS with visual cues
  • Use enticing descriptions to set menu items apart. The more expensive, the more delicious it should sound!
  • Mention impressive features of your ingredients such as wagyu.


Time to test

This is where all your hard work will be tested. Get your menu out there and see if your adjustments are making a difference!



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