Four Ways to Boost Profits By Streamlining Your Menu

How to ease operational pressures and please guests. 

Operators who are facing labor constraints and rising food costs are focusing on innovative ways to increase efficiencies and reduce operating costs while still pleasing guests. Streamlining the menu is a great way to accomplish this, so operators are rethinking ingredients and moving some selections from the left to right side of the menu. 

According to the 2019 trends forecast from Baum+Whiteman International Restaurant Consultants, the $15 minimum wage movement is one of the factors that is exerting pressure on restaurant operators and potentially decreasing already thin margins. Menu costs are also contributing to thin margins. According to the consultancy, for the 12 months ended August 2018, food prices away from home rose 2.6 percent, while food purchased at grocery stores rose only 0.5 percent.

Here are four ways to increase operational efficiencies while still pleasing guests:

1. Cut back on a long list

In the past year Dunkin’, Chili’s Grill & Bar and McDonald’s reduced the size of their menus.

Most notably McDonald’s, which saw sales growth in the first quarter of this year, eliminated the Signature Craft burgers and sandwiches, made some items not available overnight and let franchisees limit which breakfast items to offer all day.      

The menu can be an operator’s best friend or worst enemy, says Dean Small, founder and managing partner of SYNERGY Restaurant Consultants. “If you’ve got an extraordinarily large menu it becomes very difficult to train people,” he says. “There is a cost associated with training, and when you have turnover it starts over.” He recommends a menu mix analysis, which entails pulling point-of-sale system information on which items are selling, accurate food costs for each, and the margins.

2. Buy pre-made

Inexpensive ingredients can drive up labor costs if every menu item requires intense prep work. “This is an industry with very thin margins to start with,” Small says. “You have to be able to manage those prime expenses, food, beverage, labor.” 

“Years ago it was food costs, but now you are looking at all-in costs,” says Sylvia Matzke-Hill, culinary director for Famous Dave's of America, Inc. “So labor issues and efficiencies in back-of-the-house have taken on a more complex twist.”

She recommends reconfiguring current menu options instead of adding a variety of new items. “We’re looking at more of the speed-scratch process for ways in which we can continue to offer quality while reducing part of the prep,” says Matzke-Hill. “Prep work isn’t always fun when it’s cutting a bag of onions.”

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For example, instead of slicing and breading onions to make onion rings, buy pre-cut, breaded or battered onion rings, then add signature toppings or sauces. Instead of peeling and cutting potatoes, high-quality pre-made French fries may be a better choice.

3. Look for cross utilization

Operators are also streamlining their ingredient lists.

Cross-utilizing ingredients can help lower food costs by limiting food waste.

At Shuckin’ Shack Oyster Bar, the shrimp sliders were very successful, so the 16-unit eatery added beef sliders, which use the same brioche buns. The chain then decided to add several burgers that use a larger version of the same brioche buns: The Swing Bridge Shrimp Burger, The Breakwater burger, The Crab Trap crab cake sandwich and The Hermit fish sandwich.

“We also cross utilize our Texas Toast and French Bread on a number of items,”  says chief operating officer Bill Bartlett. “We look for dual and triple use of product.”

4. From left to right

Adding menu items does not have to add costs. Operators can look to their appetizer and side menus as a basis for new entrées and shareables. “The appetizer category is a great place to be experimental,” Small says. “People are willing to be adventurous because they are not gambling their entire meal on an appetizer.” If the small plate is a hit, the operator can develop an entrée or shareable with a similar flavor profile. For example, loaded fries are a crowd favorite, and loaded onion rings, with various sauces and cheeses, are also showing up on menus.

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From dropping slow sellers to transforming appetizers into a culinary adventure, easing operational pressures on back-of-the-house is a good way to boost profits. “If you don’t streamline the menu, it just makes it very difficult to be profitable,” Small says. “At the end of the day you have to make money.”