From BBQ and burgers to fine dining, we know Memphis is home to some of the best restaurants in the mid-south. But the way those restaurants choose their menu items and put their menus together can make or break their success.
It's much more than just words on paper with numbers. The menu is a reflection of what a restaurant has to offer. Shawn Danko, owner of Kooky Canuck says, "We have to hit as many target groups as we can."
Danko, who opened the restaurant in Downtown Memphis 8 years ago, says there's definitely an art to putting together the perfect menu. "I use a spread sheet that helps determine what items percentage-wise are selling better than others and the ones with the lower numbers, the lower percentages, typically end up falling by the wayside and disappear."
While the numbers don't lie, sometimes they disappoint customers. Danko says, "You still have the people that come by and say, 'where are my corn brats? I can't believe you took those off the menu.' And you're like, 'oh gosh! I'm sorry!'"
Danko says most casual dining restaurants change their menus out about every six months. Items can change with dieting trends like low carb, gluten free and low calorie diets. And just like clothing, "styles" of foods change.
At a place like the Kooky Canuck, which is known for its 4-pound Kookamonga Burger, all that beef needs the right "accessories."
"The fried egg has made a huge comeback in burgers. A lot of people call them breakfast burgers or One-eyed Jacks. Avocado has also made a huge comeback in burgers."
The items that stay on the menu are carefully arranged on the menu based on popularity and how people look at menus.
Danko says for single page menus, peoples' "sight-pattern" follows a "z." "The eye tends to start here (upper left), work its way across, then trail down and then work its way across again." Those items purchased the most typically are at the top of the list. "We're trying to highlight the most popular item at the top of each column and then the third at the bottom of the column."
Fine dining, is a little bit of a different ball game.
Across the street from the Kooky Canuck, inside the Peabody Hotel, Chef Andreas Kisler is constantly working on the menu at Chez Philippe, where entrees change much more frequently. "We have an ongoing process of changing menus," says Kisler.
Three course, five course and seven course meals are offered at a flat rate at Chez Philippe. Still, Chef Andreas says the most-popular items are placed at the top of each column on the menu, just like at Kooky Canuck.
He says, as a chef, it's fun to get creative with picking menu items but he still has to cater to the customers. "Shrimp and grits is very southern. One of the things you have to learn as a chef, with the regions that you live in. If you put shrimp and grits on a menu in California, they will look at you and say, 'huh?' But if you do it here, it's something that everybody's like wow!"
Wowing with local ingredients and what is in season, also dictates what's on the menu at fine-dining establishments but according to Chef Conrad, who prepares the desserts for Chez Philippe, there are safe choices when preparing a menu. Chef Conrad says, "Sometimes we just stay with the simple things; like vanilla crème brule is one of the big ones. Cheese cake, you can't live without it. Bread pudding is a big thing lately again. Oldies, they're still good out there too."
So, the art of the menu is much more than meets the eye. After all, first impressions mean everything, especially, when your appetite is involved.
Another interesting nugget to know about restaurant menus is the items you see pictured on those menus are typically high-profit items for the restaurant. Something they make a lot of money from. But just like modeling portfolios, that food has to look perfect to appeal to your taste-buds. Which is why some restaurants just don't bother.