Oftentimes restaurants fall victim to the plague of The Massive Menu. Pages upon pages of apps, sandwiches, pastas, salads, and more. It’s understandable to want to please any type of customer that might come in the door. So why not put a little “something for everyone” on the menu? Unfortunately, that’s counter-intuitive.

As far as a menu goes, less really does tend to be more.

By paring down your menu, and improving the items on it, your customers will be leaving happier and be more excited to return.

Your Menu is Your Brand

Sure, advertisements, social media, websites, and decor help solidify your brand. But your menu is your brand. It’s what you’re selling.

Focusing on a limited menu allows you to establish and focus a brand. If your menu features a culmination of cuisine genres or a confusing array of dishes, chances are you’re not creating an effective brand. Unless you run a large franchise, your menu probably shouldn’t read like the Cheesecake Factory or Olive Garden.

Customers generally want to know what sort of genre of cuisine they’re getting themselves into when they choose a restaurant. When they go out to eat, they’re searching for specific keywords: “Italian”, “Local”, “Vegan”, “Gluten Free”. Part of establishing an effective brand is clearly establishing who you are, and what you have to offer.

This doesn’t mean you have to pigeon-hole your restaurant into one genre. But it does mean you need to convey a specific vision to your customers. Are you an “Asian Fusion” restaurant? Do you specialize in “Local Ingredients”? Are you “Vegan-Friendly”? Even if you serve multiple genres of food, you should be able to boil your vision down into one or two words to convey a clear idea to your customers. Narrowing down exactly what your brand is will enhance your marketing.

Having a Large Menu is Like Throwing Away Money

Stocking enough food to carry a 50 item menu means that most likely you are either freezing or throwing away a good portion of your inventory. Unless turnover is very high, keeping fresh ingredients for a large menu is difficult without freezing, creating food waste, or skipping fresh food altogether.

Once you’ve run out of (or thrown out) the food required for your menu, you, your chef or manager has to order more. Ordering to stock a large inventory, obviously, is more expensive than ordering a smaller inventory.

Limiting your dish options can help ensure that your food is fresh and that you spend less money on it.

Is Your Huge Menu Reducing Food Quality?

Food costs are not the only financial considerations to make. Your menu may be driving away customers if you’re focusing on quantity over quality.

A huge menu has an unexpected casualty: the kitchen. When putting together a menu, you might only have the customer in mind. But the back-of-house are the ones who will have to make the menu function. Stretching your chefs to be prepared to make one of hundreds of possibilities (including special orders and modifications) increases wait time, and puts undue stress on the kitchen staff. This opens the door for mistakes, late food, or missing food. Chefs may have to lean on microwaves and heat lamps more heavily.

Because large menus reduce efficiency, it inevitably reduces the quality of your food. Lower quality leads to negative reviews, and eventually loss of profit. If you focus on a 25 item menu and execute it well, your customers will be happier than with a 50 item menu made poorly.

More Isn’t Always More

It might seem like a good idea to offer your customer as many options as possible. Who wouldn’t want to be able to get whatever they want in a restaurant? Well, it turns out most people wouldn’t.

Studies have shown that people are more confident and happier with their choices when they are offered fewer options, rather than more. Having fewer options reduces “buyer’s regret”. Having a limited menu adds the benefit of customers feeling more satisfied with what they’ve selected, rather than feeling that perhaps they should have ordered something else.

Being overwhelmed with choices also starts a customer’s experience at your restaurant with hesitation, doubt, and pressure. Having the server come to the table three times and still not being able to decide what they want is not an experience most people enjoy. Pare down your options, and you’ll find customers will make more confident choices and be more satisfied with them.

Rotation, Rotation, Rotation

In addition to having a limited menu, you may also want to consider rotating your menu regularly. This goes further than adding in the occasional “special”. By changing up your menu, you can encourage customers to visit by providing a variety of options. It also encourages repeat customers, drawing them back with new dishes.

You can rotate your menu based on halves of the year (Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter), by individual seasons, monthly, or even weekly. We previously talked about using local ingredients in your restaurant, and by rotating your menu, you will be able to take advantage of what ingredients are in season. This means that not only will you be saving money, you’ll also be purchasing fresher and better-tasting ingredients.

As a side effect, having a rotating menu gives you a special marketing opportunity. By posting your new menu on social media, you are essentially creating a brand new ad for yourself on a regular basis, without having to do much of anything in addition to normal operations.

Can a Smaller Menu Hold Up to a Large Menu?

Is it possible for a restaurant with a limited menu to overcome larger counterparts? The answer is yes, with conditions.

If you choose to implement a smaller menu, you must execute each dish incredibly well. The downside (or upside considering how you see it) is that the margin for error in terms of quality is much wider. If one item on your menu simply doesn’t measure up, that could be 1/10th of your menu that is done poorly.

Limiting your dishes forces you and your staff to strive for excellence in every dish. And as a side effect, you will enhance your brand. If you do a few dishes very well, you will find that your customers will be more likely to actively choose your establishment over others.

There are many restaurants that offer what one would consider a “limited menu” around Pittsburgh and are executing them well.

Establishments with under 30 items on their dinner food menu include Avenue B (Shadyside), Pork n’ Beans (Downtown), Bar Frenchman (East Liberty), Altius (Mount Washington), Spoon (East Liberty), Legume (Oakland), and Coca Cafe (Lawrenceville).

Then there are the almost minimalistic menus of establishments like Apteka and Hidden Harbor (both with under 15 items on their food menu) who have come to be local favorites with dedicated customers.

All of these establishments (and more in Pittsburgh) have great branding and have shown they can succeed with a refined menu. And the success of their smaller menu can be simplified into one statement: they are unique in what they offer and they do it well.

If your menu is over 30 items (not including alcohol), consider giving it a review. Pare down items that aren’t ordered often, and make sure the dishes you do offer give a clear message as to who you are.