How Transparent Is Your Menu?

Industry surveys show that Americans in 2012 are now ready to spend more money on dining out, but only if they feel that what they are eating is good for them and offers a good value. It's time to focus on transparency and imparting information to your customers so they can make educated menu choices.

What will diners be looking for and what should restaurateurs watch for this year? We've discovered five opportunities:

List calorie counts

As you may recall, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 requires greater disclosure of the nutritional information of restaurant food. However, the Food and Drug Administration has yet to issue final rules, although they could come this spring.

Under the federal standard, restaurants with 20 or more locations will be required to provide calories on menus, menu boards and drive-thru menu boards, and make other written information available on request. The alternative is the patchwork of local laws that have been developing over the past few years.

Promote locally grown

The reason states and larger cities became involved in menu labeling is the growing consumer demand for healthier dining options and fresh ingredients. Using locally sourced and/or seasonal ingredients when possible — and highlighting them on your menu — can gain customer loyalty.

Include allergy information

Food allergies are on the rise among children and adults, with the most common being milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish.

The only way to prevent a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction is to constantly guard against accidental exposures to hidden food allergens through inadvertent cross-contamination.

Showing concern for your patrons' dietary needs with language on your menu that encourages anyone to inquire about any dish is a great first step. Also investing in training on food allergy issues for both the front and back of the house staff is a smart step.

Look at your beverages

Anything that can make diners feel like your establishment is delivering an experience they couldn't get at the competition will bring them back again. Why not start with what they're drinking?

Diners are looking for new flavors and freshly made refreshers. You can reverse declining beverage sales by offering interesting, inexpensive alternatives to "just water." Creating new versions of existing beverages can help grow sales in an area where people are willing to spend a little more for something different.

Offer mini sizes

A way to sell more of those fun beverages is to serve them alongside smaller versions of your main menu items. Miniature desserts, bite-sized sliders and anything that looks like a regular-sized item — only smaller — will be irresistible.

The mini-me trend has many advantages: it's fun, allows diners to gain more control over their budgets and portions, and offers a unique experience that will bring customers back again.