How to Optimize a Digital Menu, Part 2:<br>Organization for Differentiation

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Sixty-two percent of independent restaurant operators say that offering something unique and different from their competitors is extremely important to the success of their business*. One of the most critical points of differentiation for a restaurant is the menu. Because of this, operators need to ensure the menu easily communicates and highlights what makes their restaurant unique. This is especially true for digital menus, since so many diners browse restaurant menus online before deciding where to eat. While there is no standard format for building a digital menu, there are particular ways menus can be organized, and certain dishes highlighted, to help improve a menu’s effectiveness. The position of each item on an online menu can be thoughtfully curated to match not only what a diner wants, but more importantly, what a restaurant needs.

To help you get the most out of your online menus, we’re sharing some of our best practices to strategically organize categories and highlight certain menu items, to set your restaurant apart from competitors and boost digital menu profitability.

Menu Category Structure

Diners are generally accustomed to seeing menus organized in very traditional categories like:

  • Appetizers
  • Entrées
  • Sides
  • Desserts
  • Drinks

While this standard might work for a dine-in menu, that doesn’t translate as well for maximum profitability on an online menu. When a diner is viewing a menu online, the restaurant has approximately three seconds of initial engagement with that diner. If that person isn’t intrigued, or doesn’t see what they want during that brief time, they will likely move on to another restaurant, in the hopes that it will provide what they’re looking for. The last thing you want after attracting a diner to view your menu online is to lose them to your competitor.

When a diner is viewing a menu online, the restaurant has approximately three seconds of initial engagement with that diner. 

So, when you create a menu online, you’ll want to take a different approach than you would with a dine-in menu. You must also consider how you can capture the attention of restaurant customers within this short window of opportunity. An effective and easy way to do this is to create a curated “Popular Items” category at the very top of the menu. Items within this category are not only popular, they should be some of your most profitable items. This basic tactic has been successful in grabbing diners’ attention, contributing to the ultimate goal to increase restaurant sales online.

Even though it may feel somewhat awkward to display a burger or a pizza before a salad or soup, those items may be exactly what an online diner needs to motivate their purchase behavior, and move from the “browsing stage” to actually placing an order. At the end of the day, diners don’t want to be told what to order, but are often looking for recommendations. They can be effectively influenced by this strategic organization of your digital restaurant menu.

Highlighting Menu Specials and Trending Dishes

Remember when it seemed that everyone on Instagram was jumping on the bandwagon of rainbow-colored foods? Then, nearly just as quickly, the bright colors faded in favor of activated charcoal blackness. Trends can be fleeting, so savvy operators keep a pulse on diners’ changing tastes. Just because Thai rolled ice cream and poké bowls are trending with diners today doesn’t mean that this will be the case in five years, or even a year from now. The flexibility of an online menu can help a restaurant more nimbly address diner and industry trends as they heat up and cool down.

For example, many diners kick off the new year with a resolution to “eat clean” – or at least make healthier choices to recover from overindulging over the holidays. In response, restaurants can try highlighting their healthier options in a separate section towards the top of their digital menus. The advantage of an online menu is that these additions can always be adjusted come February – and perhaps replaced with a “Date Night” section around Valentine’s Day.

If the restaurant offers vegan or vegetarian items, and they know many of their dine-in customers are already requesting these kinds of dishes because of dietary needs, these items can also be placed into a “Meatless Monday” category to be highlighted every Monday. For example, The Granola Bar, in Fairfield Connecticut, optimized their ChowNow menu to create separate sections for their avocado toast and their “Paleo” baked goods.

online menu options

You can also look for trends like the ever popular "Foodie Holidays" that are featured on Millennial foodie influencers’ Instagram feeds throughout the year. Whether it be National Doughnut Day or National Fried Chicken Day, a restaurant should try to incorporate and highlight these on its' online menu when applicable.

Maybe your restaurant offers daily specials or a seasonal menu. Without a server to speak to these specials and make recommendations before the customer orders, they could be overlooked on a digital menu. Make sure these limited-time offers aren’t lost in the shuffle when a customer browses your menu online. Place them in a more strategic position, in a separate section towards the top of your digital menu.

Highlighting trends like these on your menu and positioning your most popular and profitable items above the fold can help attract new customers and increase restaurant sales. Restaurants that can keep up with evolving diner demands and trends, without losing sight of their brand, are the ones most likely to succeed in the long term. A well-developed online menu design has the potential to make an immediate impact on order volume, boosting a restaurant’s overall success.

Want to see these best practices in action? The final installment in our “Digital Menus” series showcases how US Foods® customers used these tools and strategies to create successful online menus.

About ChowNow:
ChowNow powers an online food ordering system as part of CHECKTM Business Tools. ChowNow allows customers to place orders directly from a restaurant's website, Facebook page, Instagram profile and custom-built mobile apps – commission-free. Learn more about ChowNow by visiting online ordering in CHECK Business Tools.