The Engineering of the Chain Restaurant Menu

At IHOP and Applebee's, menus are sales documents. And navigational guides. And explainers. 
The "handout" menu, featuring experimental offerings being market-tested by IHOP (Megan Garber)

This weekend I had lunch at an International House of Pancakes. The menus my companion and I were given to help us navigate this experience were large and laminated and, in their overall demeanor, perky. They were also, in full disclosure, a little bit sticky. But they were, most of all, extremely well-organized. They featured page after page of food options, all of them neatly categorized under tab-like headings and color-codings: pancakes over here, crepes over there, French toast over here, brioche French toast over there. 

The menus, despite their syrup-resistant lamination and their eager offering of the pancake stack known as the Rooty Tooty Fresh N' Fruity, were fairly luxurious in their scope, and also very How We Live Now. (So many choices! So many calories!) But they also reflected—what with their cheery colors and their buttery images and their clear preference that one order one's pancakes as part of a combo—what a menu is, at its core: a pitch. Menus are marketing materials, documents that aim to sell and seduce as well as inform. Sometimes they are beautiful; sometimes they are comical; sometimes they are, as in the case of chain restaurants like IHOP, both. 

As Shannon Scott, head of menu design at the IHOP sister-brand Applebee's, told me: "The menu is really the single most important representation of the brand in the restaurant, other than the building itself." 

The cover of the "core menu," featuring talk bubbles and social media icons and many, many layers of jam (Megan Garber)

***

It’s a difficult time, right now, to be a chain restaurant. Mid-tier standbys like Olive Garden and Red Lobster have been losing market share to fast-casual spots like Chipotle; even the mighty McDonald's has struggled with falling sales. Analysts have blamed menus, among other things, for the losses, arguing that the offering of too many food items—compared with relatively sparse menus like Chipotle’s—might be harming sales rather than helping them. Choices are good; too many choices, however, can simply be confusing. Joe's Crab Shack got attention when, several years ago, it realized that it offered too many items that were not crab. The chain tweaked its menu to focus more on the food it’s named for, and has since enjoyed 18 consecutive quarters of sales growth

It’s a lesson other chains are trying to learn. Take, again, IHOP. Several years ago, the restaurant’s executives recognized that they might have their own paradox-of-choice problem on their hands. The International House had its pancakes, of course, but it also had breakfast foods and burgers and steak dinners on offer. It had sides. It had salads. And its own extensive market research concluded that maintaining that buffet-in-a-box approach was actually a good thing: In IHOP’s case, its studies suggested, consumers actually wanted lots of choice.

But that conclusion presented a challenge for IHOP’s menu itself. How do you present all those varied—you might even say "random"—offerings in a way that entices customers instead of confusing them? How do you keep people from flipping straight to the flapjack section, thus preventing themselves from learning that IHOP, contra its name, would be happy to sell them a chicken and chorizo burrito? As Natalia Franco, IHOP's head of marketing, told me: "Because the menu's so long and difficult to navigate, even our most heavy guests were not aware of the breadth of our offering."

The restaurant’s research into its food, in other words, made its executives think that its biggest challenge wasn’t, actually, edible. It was technological. It came down to that enormous book, laminated in plastic, that connects the front of the house to the back. "As part of those bigger studies,” Franco says, “we clearly knew that improving and optimizing our menu was priority number one." 

Take the tour! (IHOP.com)

***

In the summer of 2012, Franco and her team began a strategic overhaul of the IHOP menu. Informing their work was not just in-person focus groups, web-based market research, and analyses of in-store food sales. The team also relied on eye-tracking studies that would help its members consider how human attention interacts with the physical object of the menu. It conducted T.U.R.F. analysis to test menu items. It considered the interaction of graphics and photographs, of text and white space, of colors cool and warm.

The menu IHOP ended up launching was one of three prototypes Franco and her team considered and market-tested; this version uses a “catalog” approach to presenting food offerings. It prioritizes images over text, with large pictures of food offerings studding the menu’s pages. It also offers color-coding—a feature meant, in part, to draw the eye toward certain food offerings and categories. Perhaps the most important change from the previous menu, though, was a grouping system that categorized food items into neat culinary taxonomies: pancakes on this page, omelettes on this one, etc.

“The menu needed some logic in its layout,” Franco says. And, nearly two years after that logic was introduced, she thinks the taxonomic approach has paid off. “Now guests and consumers are self-identifying products that they think are new,” she says. Those items were always on the menu, for the most part; it’s just that “they never noticed them.” The menu, she thinks, helped them to notice.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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