Menus: So Much More Than a Price List

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Renowned chef and restaurateur Marc Murphy knows the value of a well-thought-out menu, and it’s not just about font choices and layout, as Marc learned in this episode of Food 360. A good menu is an integral part of our eating experience, and more than just listing prices and ingredients, a menu should tell a story, frame expectations, and reflect the restaurant’s location and culture, all without overwhelming the customer. Sounds a little daunting but fortunately, Marc is joined by acclaimed chef Marcus Samuelsson to talk about the art of menu planning as well as the intention and goals behind the choices of dishes and ingredients - something every chef can appreciate. But of course there’s a science to it as well, as Marc discovered from bona fide menu engineer Greg Rapp.


It turns out there’s quite a lot to tinker with when it comes to a menu, from the magic number of selections, to how the price is listed, to the descriptions of the food itself. Greg explained, “A lazy menu is what I call when a chef just puts the ingredients and commas and that’s all it is. It doesn’t tell you anything about the food or the item or what it’s about. I want you to build little stories on your menus so it’s more interesting and build some personality.” Even the psychology of names is important, like calling something “Grandma’s Biscuits” or just using the word “homemade” in the description. Greg stated, “It sounds better and a person, when they read something, they taste what we tell them that they’re tasting. It adds a halo of quality to it and says something about it, so you know that it was developed by somebody and it doesn’t come out of a big commercial kitchen. So by naming the food, you’re adding a story behind it and you’re adding value to it.”

Stories mattered to Marc’s next guest, Marcus Samuelsson, as well, but his focus was more on how the location of a restaurant, the story of its neighborhood and people and what they want to eat, should inform a menu as much as anything. He should know: he has successful restaurants in four different countries, as well as in Harlem and New Jersey. “Well, I’ve been an immigrant six times, right?” Marcus said. “But it’s also about then understanding what local means in those places… what matters here. Local... is not a tag word.” This approach has led to guests being more vocal than usual about what they like and dislike: “When I walk home, it’s like, ‘Why is that chicken $28? You know my son needs to have a job there. That better be on the menu,'” he laughed. Marc commiserated, saying there were many times when he would get yelled at for trying to take a beloved dish off a menu. “Customers... dictate what you’re going to have on your menu sometimes,” he said.

“The one thing that is worse than this, it’s complete silence. That means that no one cares," Marcus pointed out. "There’s a privilege to have people in your face like that.”

Learn about Greg’s eye-tracking software to find hot spots on menus, what's on the radio in Marcus's kitchen (everything from Prince to Kiss is represented), and how to walk the line between comforting and challenging customers’ palates, in this episode of Food 360.

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