The Engineering of the Chain Restaurant Menu

At IHOP and Applebee's, menus are sales documents. And navigational guides. And explainers. 
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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.

She has reason to think that. Since it released the new menu, IHOP’s sales have been up 3.6 percent—a small bump, but a notable one in a market that finds most sales numbers trending downward. The increase, Franco says, has been “primarily driven by selection and upsell” within the menu itself. Customers are seeing more options. They’re ordering more side dishes and beverages. They’re taking more advantage of the food offerings, rather than going straight for the old short stack-with-a-side-of-sausage combo. Franco is convinced: “Our guests are ordering additional items,” she says, “because of the appeal of the menu.”

A taxonomy of waffles, color-coded and laminated (Megan Garber)

***

Menus, as listings of food items on offer at a given establishment, date back to the Song Dynasty in China. They were an urban phenomenon, the result of entrepreneurial merchants realizing that they could entice customers by offering them some food. And since Chinese cuisine varied so much across regions, those early restaurateurs created lists to describe their culinary offerings to their patrons—many of whom had made long journeys to do their shopping.

The term “menu” itself is French; it derives from the Latin "minutus," or “something made small.” The menu as we know it today—a listing of offerings, usually printed on paper—first appeared in France during the late 1700s. It was, in its way, revolutionary. Before then, restaurants simply served dishes that were chosen by their chefs or owners, and often served at a common table. Along with the menu came personal choice in dining. And it also brought some economic flexibility to the concept of eating out: While a table d'hôte-style restaurant charged its customers a fixed price, a menu allowed customers to spend as much money, or as little, as they saw fit.

Today, that basic idea—the power on the side of the customer—translates to menus that try to be, in their way, seductive. Shannon Scott, of Applebee’s, describes the factors that play into the restaurant’s menu design. “It's about consumer behavior and human behavior and human habits and the way people think,” she says. She and her team consider, among other things, “what colors would draw the eye, and what colors might make you turn away.” They think about the interplay between font color and the color of the photos of the food. They think about readability in different physical spaces—since, as Scott notes, “lighting in the restaurant is going to be a little darker in the evening.”       

Applebee’s also thinks about what it calls “freshness cues”: little design features that can imply to a menu-navigating customer that there are healthier foods than ribs and fries on offer. Applebee’s brand colors are red and orange—“but we'll play within those color palettes,” Scott says, “so you might see some brighter orange, going down the spectrum on the red.” The chain’s menu varies seasonally, so you’ll see those brighter colors, in particular, in the spring and summer. You’ll also see complements of green on the menu, the better to highlight the chain’s salad offerings. 

"Freshness cues" from Applebee's (applebees.com)

Photos, as at IHOP, play an important role in the Applebee's menu design. “You use the visuals—a combination of the photography and the graphics—to pull the consumer's eye through the menu,” Scott says. “So pictures are strategically placed to guide the consumer where we want them to flow, so it's easier for them to find what they're looking for.”

When it comes to menus, in other words, there’s a fine line between seduction and navigation. As Scott puts it: “It's not as random as it may seem. Each photo is strategically placed within the section and within the page to make sure it helps with that navigation. And to ensure that whatever food story we're wanting to come through is able to come through.”

***

Talk to a menu designer, and you could be forgiven for assuming that you’re talking to a web designer. Franco discusses “traffic.” Scott discusses “user experience.” They think a lot about the distribution of words and images, about creating an experience that will alternately soothe and excite, about creating a product that will entice the new customers and reward the regulars. It's a stock and flow idea, applied to customers themselves. “We want to bring something new and be able to bring excitement to the consumer,” Franco says. At the same time, though, “we want to create that equity of those consumers who want to come back.”

Striking that balance is both helped and complicated by the fact that menus at places like IHOP and Applebee’s are constantly changing: Menus may be marketing documents, but they’re also living documents. IHOP updates its menu, albeit in a much less extensive way than its 2012 overhaul, every four months, experimenting with new offerings that it’s essentially test-marketing. Some of these new offerings prove temporary and get, as Franco says, "deleted"; the most popular ones may make it to the permanent menu. It's a nice little A/B test for the world of flapjacks and omelettes.

Which brings us back to my lunch at IHOP this weekend. We were given, actually, two menus: IHOP’s “core menu,” the multi-page, laminated behemoth; and also a supplemental document—a slightly smaller booklet, also laminated, that IHOP calls the “handout.” The handout consists of the chain’s “feature items,” the experimental stuff like red velvet pancakes and New York cheesecake pancakes—the stuff that strives, and often fails, to make it to the big leagues of the core menu. So at that booth at IHOP, as we weighed the relative merits of eggs and bacon and syrup-smothered flapjacks that would be neither Fresh nor Fruity, we had become not just IHOP’s customers, but also its focus group. Simply by looking at the menu—simply by using it to guide our decisions about what to put in our stomachs—we were helping the chain with its marketing.

Which makes sense: “We're constantly evolving as the consumer does,” Scott notes. And what is a menu, in the end, if not a conversation among an eager restaurant, a hungry diner, and some short stacks? 

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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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