Revel Blog

Should Your Restaurant Shrink the Menu?

Coral Drake | November 15, 2022 |

menu building Featured
Should Your Restaurant Shrink the Menu?

Menu changes can be scary. If a customer shows up expecting a particular menu item that's no longer available, you could end up with an unhappy customer or even a lost regular. On the other hand, trying to maintain a menu that isn't working for your restaurant is overwhelming for the kitchen and wait staff. Not only that, but it may also be hurting your sales. Here are some considerations to help you decide whether it would be a good idea for your restaurant to shrink the menu.

Why Shrink the Menu?

The Science Seems to Support a Small Menu

A study by psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper compared shoppers’ reactions to more or fewer options in jams at an upscale food market display table. While more people were attracted to a large display, people who saw the larger display were only one-tenth as likely to buy jam as people who saw the smaller display. 

Too many options can cause “choice paralysis,” which makes people less likely to make a purchase and less happy with the decisions they do make. Put it in the context of a restaurant menu, it becomes clear why a smaller menu may be a good decision. 

Save Money and Reduce Waste

Restaurants are notorious for waste. Even if you do your best to donate what you can and reuse ingredients in multiple dishes before they spoil, there's probably a fair amount of waste at your restaurant

Waste is bad for the environment and for your bottom line. Furthermore, your customers may not like frequenting a business that causes a lot of waste. Restaurants with big menus need to have more ingredients on hand but are far less likely to use them, which means that large venues pretty much guarantee more waste. Modern customers are well aware of this, and may be more likely to choose restaurants that offer fewer options but advertise less waste.

Raise the Perceived Value of Your Offerings

There's an association between a small menu and an expensive, high quality restaurant. In fact, the most expensive restaurants often offer only one or two choices of meal courses, or may offer a couple of choices at each course. 

While your restaurant may not be ready to put all of your effort into a single or small-course meal, offering fewer, but higher quality options can be a good way to improve the perception of your restaurant. When you offer fewer items, you can afford to spend a bit more on the ingredients, so you may really be able to improve what you have to offer, not just create the perception of doing so. 

Either way, it's clear that offering only a few menu items is likely to make customers think your restaurant is of a higher quality.

It's Good for Branding

A smaller menu can help you better define your restaurant brand. Are you a classic stone oven pizza place or a mixed pizza and general Italian food restaurant? While it may seem that combining areas would bring in more customers, in fact you may find that focusing on just one of these areas is more likely to resonate. 

When customers are thinking about what they want, restaurants that offer lots of different things may be less likely to come to mind. On the other hand, if a customer wants a burger or a piece of great pizza, they may think of a restaurant that has a smaller menu with only burgers or pizza. 

Even if your restaurant has a bit of an eclectic mix or offers a variety of American foods, making the menu smaller can let you focus on elements of branding like locally-sourced food, fun and wild ingredient combinations, or something else that makes your restaurant special.

Make Your Food Better

Ask any restaurant food preparation staff member whether they would do a better job with fewer dishes to prepare, and the answer is likely to be unanimous. It simply makes sense that making the same dish more often would make you better at it. 

Focusing on a small menu allows chefs to make each menu item as good as possible, tweaking dishes subtly from time to time until they’re perfect. Furthermore, because ingredients are used more quickly, they are likely to be fresher. There may be fewer menu items to choose from, but the options available are likely to be better than they would have been on a larger menu.

Happier Employees and Customers

Restaurants with smaller menus are less likely to find that dishes come out unfinished, mixed up, or badly prepared. Fewer options in sides, salads, etc. means there are fewer details to mix-up between the wait staff and the kitchen. Smaller menus simply mean the restaurant runs more smoothly. Training is easier too, since there are fewer questions from customers and options for wait staff to memorize.

Why Keep a Big Menu

With so many reasons to shrink the menu, you may be wondering what reasons there are for maintaining a big one. Many restaurants keep a big menu despite the advantages of shrinking it for a variety of reasons. There are definitely some risks to consider in shrinking the menu and some reasons that a large menu can be beneficial.

Experiment More and Do it Faster 

With a big menu, you can offer menu items that are more of a gamble. Put together a couple of wild options that you're not sure anyone will buy and see what happens. Throw out three or four new menu items a week and see which are doing well and deserve to make it to the next week. 

As fast as your chefs can think of a new thing to try out, you can get it on the menu. This kind of experimentation is a great way to find out what works well for your restaurant and in your area. Down the road, if you want to shrink the menu, you'll know what works.

Appeal to a Wider Audience

You may not be the first restaurant that people think of for a specific menu item, but if you have lots of types of food available, you'll probably easily appeal to large crowds. This is why big chain restaurants so often offer a lot of menu options. 

Craving Mexican? There are taco, fajita, and margarita choices. Want a steak? There are a few decent cuts to choose from. These restaurants may not do anything as well as if they had a smaller menu, but they can please a crowd.

How to Do a Small Menu Well

Ready to shrink the menu, but not sure how to do it? Here are a few suggestions for making a menu smaller successfully.

  • Maintain some constants. Your restaurant should always have a few favorite go-to items that you know your repeat customers crave. Comfort food works well, as do unique and well-known combinations. Constant menu options should also be on brand for what you want customers to think of when they think of your restaurant. 
  • Mix it up. At least one or two items on your menu should always be fairly new. You don't have to change these items every week, but twice a month is a good average. Use these items to experiment with adding to your current menu and to add interest and excitement to your menu for repeat customers.
  • Utilize specials. When you have a small menu, making special events and menus specifically for them is a great way to mix it up and keep your repeat customers engaged. Brunch specials, weeknight events with distinct menu items, and other specials keep your menu and your restaurant interesting.
  • Explain the menu items well. Just because you have a smaller menu doesn't mean you should have less menu space for customers to consider. Put some details into explaining the menu items and consider a high quality photographer for your most popular items. 

Experiment With a Smaller Menu

There are a lot of advantages to a smaller menu. It’s no surprise that more and more restaurants are finding it worth the risk to substantially cut their offerings. While it's definitely anxiety-provoking to think about taking something away from your customers, it's important to think about all that a smaller menu can offer. Customers aren't likely to worry about how much is on the menu when the offerings that are available are consistently delicious, made to order, and prepared with the freshest and best ingredients.

Remember, you don't have to dive right into shrinking your menu. You can cut a few items that don't typically sell well or that cause a lot of waste. See whether they’re missed. At the same time, put more and more focus on the menu items you'd like to consider for your finalized menu. Use this process as an experiment to find out how customers respond to a shrinking menu. You can always put something back on the menu if you find that its removal is causing problems.