Is Your Restaurant Menu Holding You Back?

Anne Torregrossa

by Anne Torregrossa

Managing Supervisor

Much of the restaurant industry lives in the constant dichotomy between archaic and contemporary. It’s why you can find a chef or an expo in the back of house still using a grease pencil to mark tickets while preparing the most avant-garde or trendy dish. But as technology changes, more and more operators are exploring innovation beyond the menu offerings and onto the menu itself in the form of digital menus.

Operators are using digital menus across all foodservice operations in a variety of ways, starting with the website and extending into online ordering, mobile apps, self-ordering kiosks, digital menu boards, tableside tablets and even interactive tabletops. But when is the right time to shift to digital? And what technology makes the most sense? As you would with any big decision, you need to make sure your house is in order, then weigh the pros and cons.

Getting the House in Order

As many as 60% of restaurant operators don’t think through the engineering of their menus despite the potential for a 3–5% profit increase—and as restaurant operation costs continue to rise, every dollar counts. Menu engineering is the process of understanding the profitability and popularity of menu items, then using this knowledge to influence the placement and presentation of these items on a menu. It’s a vital step in restaurant menu design regardless of the medium—print, website, menu board, tablet or kiosk—because it provides the empirical data needed to make smart decisions about which menu items to highlight (those that are unique items for a brand or those that generate the highest profits).

This hierarchy of menu items is then handed off to a designer who is tasked with the puzzle of laying out the items to maximize the consumers’ experience. “User experience (UX)” is a term used a lot in the digital world, but it has been a part of effective traditional media design for decades. Experience design is the art of designing materials and products with a focus placed on the quality of the user experience and culturally relevant solutions. Experience design transcends the object or material; it creates an experience that pushes beyond consideration to generate trial and loyalty.

The best menu—for print or digital—is designed to influence behavior. It extends beyond where menu items are placed and includes decisions about the use of dollar signs, romantic descriptions, images and illustrations, while understanding the golden triangle (the three areas of a menu where a consumer’s eyes typically travel first) and maintaining an optimal balance of white space.

To Digital or Not to Digital

Menus are available on the websites of almost every restaurant today (and if they aren’t, they should be—beyond just linking to a boring PDF and instead using a mobile-first paradigm), and many restaurant operators are exploring the move to digital where their on-premise menu is concerned. The installation of 45,000 tablets in 2014 across 823 Chili’s Grill & Bar restaurants followed a pilot program with positive sales results, such as increased check averages and a 20% increase in both appetizer and dessert sales. At Red Robin Gourmet Burgers and Brews, tablets at tables specifically respond to typical diner pain points while maintaining the interaction between consumers and servers. Consumers can order only appetizers, beverages and desserts via the tablet, allowing that feeling of an immediate sense of action once sat and again after a meal is complete. Servers are still responsible for taking and entering entrée orders, allowing opportunity for recommendations and upselling.

C-stores such as Wawa have had self-ordering kiosks in place for years, many QSR establishments have digital menu boards and self-ordering kiosks in place today, and there has been chatter about Pizza Hut implementing on-premise digital menus in the future. There are even a few restaurants in NYC, London and Dubai that are playing with interactive restaurant technology (IRT) through interactive tabletops—talk about creating an experience. And before people have a chance to wrap their imaginations around IRT, augmented reality enters the game—but that’s a whole different conversation.

While Chili’s benefited financially from moving to tableside tablets, they are not an investment to take lightly. There are pros and cons that operators should consider:


  • Change menu items and/or pricing quickly and easily
  • Reduce overall printing costs
  • Use A/B tests on new menu items
  • Easily add and highlight LTOs, promotions, clubs, etc.
  • Ensure consistent communication of menu items and general brand information; reduce training
  • Increase check averages through upselling, faster table turns and no-judgement factor
  • Pull in online comments/ratings to highlight customer favorites
  • Set a default tip amount and use it to automatically calculate the total—customers could increase or decrease manually as desired
  • Improve customer satisfaction because the ordering process is expedited and orders are entered exactly how the customer wants them
  • Have an opportunity for full transparency and/or bigger storytelling because of the ability to display more information about menu items
  • Expand trial of menu items that customers maybe were unclear or afraid to ask a server questions about
  • Use available tracking and analytics to understand exactly how customers are interacting and engaging with the menu


  • Initial and ongoing expense of technology
  • Theft of devices
  • More pressure on BOH if servers are not managing the input of orders
  • More pressure on FOH to stay on top of orders as customers enter them; new style of service to be trained
  • Possibility that FOH staff might “forget” about customers or tables and miss out on the verbal engagement that is part of service (and experience)
  • Potential loss of upsell opportunities without a persuasive server
  • Disgruntled guests who feel the experience is too difficult or complicated
  • Increased and/or new placement of power sources required
  • Reliable and robust Wi-Fi network required

Despite the weight of the pros list above, moving to on-premise digital menus is not for everyone. It is both a strategic marketing and business decision that impacts operations and communications.

Bottom Line

It’s important to take a thoughtful approach on how to integrate technology with your menu to ensure it’s based on your brand and your customers’ needs. There is the potential to drive higher check averages, repeat visits and greater loyalty, ultimately increasing sales.

Companies that don’t continuously look ahead and understand the future of technology and consumer behavior are at risk of falling behind, or worse, going under completely. Remember Blockbuster? You don’t want to be like Blockbuster.

We deeply believe the best growth comes from asking the right questions. And we know it can be difficult for restaurants and foodservice companies to dig out from the daily grind, take a step back and make these decisions. Contact us to see how Marriner can provide Clarity on your number-one marketing tool.

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