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How the pandemic altered the art and science of “menu engineering”

Kai Ryssdal and Maria Hollenhorst Jul 26, 2021
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A QR code menu for a Mexico City restaurant. “Here in 2021 … we can start to build our digital menus a little bit better with what we learned from the pandemic,” says menu engineer Sean Willard. Photo by Claudio Cruz/AFP via Getty Images
Back to Business

How the pandemic altered the art and science of “menu engineering”

Kai Ryssdal and Maria Hollenhorst Jul 26, 2021
Heard on:
A QR code menu for a Mexico City restaurant. “Here in 2021 … we can start to build our digital menus a little bit better with what we learned from the pandemic,” says menu engineer Sean Willard. Photo by Claudio Cruz/AFP via Getty Images
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If you’ve been to a restaurant in person lately, chances are you’ve scanned a QR code on your phone rather than ordering off a traditional, printed menu. Though COVID-19 is unlikely to spread via surfaces, the desire for “touchless” ordering and the rise of takeout and delivery during the pandemic have ushered in a new era for digital menus. 

Sean Willard, a menu engineering specialist with Menu Engineers, spoke with “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal about what that means for menu design. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: I need you to help me out with “menu engineering.” What is that?

Sean Willard: Menu engineering [is] the art and science behind menus. It really pulls from a multitude of fields: behavioral economics, pricing strategy, revenue management, design, color theory — all these things play a factor in how we build menus that are easier for guests to navigate and then more profitable for the operator.

Ryssdal: That’s so interesting that you guys consider profitability. But anyway, we’ll get there in a second. What I wanted to get you on the show to talk about, though, is what the pandemic has done to people in your line of work. Because menus, as we know, have changed both in form, and, I suspect, in function a little bit.

Menu engineering specialist Sean Willard.
Menu engineering specialist Sean Willard. (Courtesy Sean Willard)

Willard: Oh, yeah. 2020 was probably the biggest change to menus ever. And the primary menu has changed from maybe the hand-held menu to the digital, mobile menu. Operators had to make this adjustment very reactionary in the pandemic, and now we’re here in 2021 and we can start to build our digital menus a little bit better with what we learned from the pandemic.

Ryssdal: Yeah, well, so let me ask you about what you learned. Because you sit down, you scan that QR code. First of all, what did you think when you first heard [about] the whole QR code and people are gonna read menus on their phones? What did you, the menu specialist, say to yourself about that?

Willard: Well, people do not like looking at menus on their phone.

Ryssdal: Yeah, that’s for sure. 

Willard: So the first thing that we work on with teams is making sure that they’re formatting well for mobile. Pictures are something that has really popped up — third-party delivery platforms have data that shows 50% higher conversions if a picture is shown versus not, so that’s really a big difference there.

Ryssdal: So I imagine that, that, well — so first of all, QR code menus aren’t going away, right? We can huff and puff and you menu specialists can say, “It’s not as good as the old days,” but they’re here to stay, right?

Willard: Oh, yeah. And they’re a good thing for many reasons. They allow operators to be more flexible in their offerings, we can change them almost instantaneously and we’re not printing hundreds of menus that are one-time use being thrown in the trash or recycle bin.

A print menu designed with input from Menu Engineers.
A print menu designed with input from Menu Engineers. (Courtesy Sean Willard)

Ryssdal: In theory, we could have dynamic pricing too, right? I mean, if, you know, the beef stroganoff is selling really well, you can bump it up a buck and a half, you know?

Willard: Yes. And that is something that a number of different platforms are working on. That is, how can they have dynamic menus that learn and become a little bit smarter as people use them?

Ryssdal: Let me just say on behalf of the dining public of America, I would like to vote no on that.

Willard: Yes, I’m very much in agreement. You know, there’s good things and bad things about it. What has to be done is if price does go up, we just have to show that there’s a time when price does go down as well. Maybe Monday or Tuesday, we might have some type of special.

Ryssdal: Right, but also it could be that, you know, if you see the shrimp scampi on the menu in the old days, and you really want the shrimp scampi, and you order it and the server comes back and says, “I’m terribly sorry, we’re out,” it will just stop appearing on that digital menu, right?

Willard: Yes, exactly. 

Ryssdal: So when you go out to eat, and you either get a QR menu or you get an old-fashioned paper menu that gets handed to you, is it possible for you to dissociate yourself from the actual process of designing that menu? Or can you just sit down and have a bite to eat, man?

Willard: It’s something that I have to work on actively, but it is something that I really do enjoy. I have a passion for it, so I love seeing a menu for the first time. And what I try to do as a customer is find what the restaurant wants me to have. So that’s something we also work on with teams.

A menu board designed with input from Menu Engineers.
A menu board designed with input from Menu Engineers. (Courtesy Sean Willard)

Ryssdal: Wait. So what’s the secret? How do I know what the restaurant wants me to have?

Willard: We have different tools that we can use. Boxes [around menu items] is one that’s a very good one, but it’s not just that. We can add descriptions and share recipes behind them, if the chef learned how to cook it from his mother —

Ryssdal: Yeah, but do you really believe that when you see it on a menu? Or are you like, “Oh, they’re just, just blowing smoke, man. This guy didn’t learn to cook it from his mom.”

Willard: You know, I think that there has to be truth in menus, so I would never fabricate that story.

Ryssdal: Fair enough. Sean Willard, he’s a menu engineer. Sean, thanks a lot. I really appreciate your time. 

Willard: Thank you very much, Kai. It’s a pleasure.

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