Design matters

Gregg Rapp is a menu engineer. He designs menus to increase restaurant profitability.

The first step is the design. Rapp recommends that menus be laid out in neat columns with unfussy fonts. The way prices are listed is very important. "This is the No. 1 thing that most restaurants get wrong," he explains. "If all the prices are aligned on the right, then I can look down the list and order the cheapest thing." It's better to have the digits and dollar signs discreetly tagged on at the end of each food description. That way, the customer's appetite for honey-glazed pork will be whetted before he sees its cost.

Also important is placement. On the basis of his own research and existing studies of how people read, Rapp says the most valuable real estate on a two-panel menu (one that opens like a magazine) is the upper-right-hand corner. That area, he says, should be reserved for more profitable dishes since it is the best place to catch--and retain--the reader's gaze.

Cheap, popular staples--like a grilled-chicken sandwich or a burger--should be harder to locate. Rapp likes to make the customer read through a mouthwatering description of seared ahi tuna before he finds them. "This is akin to the grocery store putting the milk in the back," he says. "You have to walk by all sorts of tempting, high-priced items to get to it."

The adjectives lavished on a dish can be as important as the names of the ingredients. What would you rather eatplain grilled chicken or flame-broiled chicken with a garlic rub? Scrambled eggs or farm-fresh eggs scrambled in butter? "Think 'flavors and tastes,'" Rapp says, repeating a favorite mantra. "Words like crunchy and spicy give the customer a better idea of what something will be like." Longer, effusive descriptions should be reserved for signature items. Especially the profitable ones.