1. Use Drool-Worthy Food Photos
There’s a saying chefs use when plating a dish.
“You eat with your eyes first.”
It’s a reminder that food needs to look delicious when it’s seen for the first time.
Obviously, when cooks say this to each other, they are preparing a dish for a table, but we can apply the same principle to pictures of food being used for your menu.
The first step to selling customers your menu is crisp, clear, high-definition photos of your food.
Your first thought is probably, “I don’t have everything to take pictures of my restaurant’s food.”
If you have a modern cell phone, you can take menu-worthy photographs of your food.
Most cell phones today have high-definition photo capabilities with editing tools to tweak and adjust pictures to your satisfaction. You might have to play around a little to get used to the controls, but you don’t need to spend much money on equipment to get decent pictures.
No matter what type of camera you’re using, all photos rely on a few elements to make them great.
- Image structure
This can sound intimidating at first, but I’ll go through each of these right now, and you’ll see that it’s easier than it looks.
Always start with lighting.
Good lighting is paramount to taking excellent pictures.
There are two types of light you can use—artificial and natural.
Artificial light will come from a camera flash, overhead lights, or lamps. Taking food pictures with artificial light is possible, but it takes a lot of finesse and practice.
Luckily, natural light is the best for taking food pictures, so we will focus on using daylight as our light source.
The best time to shoot photographs using natural light is 2 hours after sunrise and 2 hours before sunset—this is because the light is softened as it passes through the atmosphere.
Soft light is best because it casts the least amount of shadow. Direct light that hasn’t been diffused will cast harsh shadows on every nook and cranny of your food, creating high contrast.
Begin by setting up near a big window during the appropriate time. The light passing through the window from the side will diffuse and further soften the light. Using light from the side is best and not directly over the top.
As you can see in this image, the light coming through the window will illuminate the dish. But, with the light only coming from one direction, it will cast gentle shadows on the other side of the dish.
You can use a light reflector to fill the shadows on the other side.
In this picture, you can see the reflector is held off to the side, bouncing light onto parts of the dish that would otherwise have shadows.
Take a series of pics, then look closely at the images. Keep your eyes peeled for harsh shadows, and adjust the dish, reflector, and where your standing when you take the shot if necessary to eliminate any bad lighting.
Getting the light right can take time, so play around a bit and having someone help you will quicken the process tremendously.
Present your food like it’s picture day.
When it’s picture day at school or when we go to a professional photographer for family pics, we make sure we look nice before we get to the studio.
It’s the same idea when we set up food to be photographed.
The goal here is a clear picture showing exactly what you serve. Don’t do anything to the dish for the sake of a photo that’ll give the wrong idea of what’s served.
We’ve all seen pictures of burgers on a fast-food menu that look nothing like what you were served.
You don’t need to have the plating skills of Gordon Ramsey to pull this off, but make sure it’s an accurate representation of your food.
Like this photo from Ottavio’s Italian Restaurant.
It’s simple, artfully arranged, and shows exactly what you’ll get when you order it. There aren’t any heavy photo edits, harsh shadows, or too bright light.
Let’s take a closer look at this picture.
Notice the size and color of the plate.
These are both intentional. Whatever vessel you use when photographing your food (plate, tray, bowl, etc.), make sure your food fills the vessel.
If Ottavio’s used a larger plate, it would make the portion of food look smaller and less plentiful. People will worry that they won’t be getting their money’s worth.
The plate is also white, so the food’s colors won’t clash with the tableware. Think of plates and bowls as a canvas. The white supports and enhances the natural colors of the food.
If you need to add color, use a garnish. Again, the pasta photo uses garnishes of green to add pops of color to the image. A picture of red, white, and pasta color isn’t as interesting as what’s pictured here.
This photo of Loaded Nachos from Talkin’ Tacos is the perfect example of garnishes used well.
The layers of garnishes make this photo explode with color and texture and helps it to be one of Talkin’ Tacos' most popular menu items. Just be sure that whatever garnish you use in the photo also comes with the food you serve your customers.
You can see that even though it comes in a tray, they used white wax paper to help the colors come forward. Even if you don’t have white dinnerware as an option, just make sure that the colors don’t clash or muddy up the picture when photographed.
If you notice the plate more than the food, you need to change the plate.
Coupled with a neutral plate, you need to have a simple background. It’s ok to have a few things in the background, but only if it’s appropriate and enhances the photo.
Like this picture of Chicken Calzone from Ottavio’s.
The small bowl of marinara, other calzones, and a dusting of parmesan cheese and parsley all work together to make this photo mouthwatering.
You’ll also notice that even with so much going on in the image, the focus (the clearest part of the picture) is the calzone—creating what is called a shallow depth of field.
A shallow depth of field can elevate your food photos and help your customer to connect directly with the photo's subject.
In the calzone photo, there are other objects to distract you, but by making the background “fuzzy” (out of focus), you’re telling the customer, “focus on this.”
Talkin’ Tacos’ puts a shallow depth of field to work with this picture of their Birria Taco. Yum.
Even if you aren’t using a shallow depth of field, make sure your photos are always in focus.
Like this picture of a Caprese Salad from Ottavio’s Italian Restaurant. Each ingredient in this image is sharp and clearly defined.
We are lucky to have access to digital cameras, so when taking photos, take several shots of the same position. You might take ten of the same pictures, but one might be in better focus than the other nine.
Put on your artist hat.
To take good photos, you need to think like an artist.
What I mean by this is looking at the overall image structure and composition. I’m talking about basic elements like shapes, patterns, colors, and contrasts.
If you’ve never done this before, it can seem a bit overwhelming, but I’m going to show you how to look at an image like an artist.
The subject of composition can run pretty deep, but by using the “rule of thirds,” it’s pretty easy to get some great photos in a matter of minutes.
The rule of thirds breaks an image down using two vertical lines and two horizontal lines, making a grid mark pattern with nine squares.
The idea is to place objects/focal points at the intersections of these imaginary lines or along the length of the lines themselves to help give the photo a more natural, balanced, and eye-catching feel.
Why does this work, and why is it thirds?
The answer is way too long for this guide, but humans are hard-wired to look for patterns, and we love odd-numbered groupings.
Placing objects around these lines forces our eyes to roam around the photo as opposed to the subject being placed in the center of the photo, where our eye only has one place to go.
Ottavio's Italian Restaurant uses the rule of thirds in this photo of their garlic bread.
The red lines show the rule of thirds, and the intersections are focal points of the food. The blue lines highlight the natural lines created by the bread, which helps add to the picture by pulling your eye from one end to the other—same thing with Talkin’ Tacos’ photo of their Birria Taco.
You can also feel the movement in this photo as the jus drips back into the cup. It tells you that it’s not a cup of soup but a dipping sauce for the taco. This photo helps to make the Birria Taco one of Talkin’ Tacos' most popular items.
Let’s look at this picture from Union Pizza Co. to see how you can make even a plate of chicken wings look artful and engaging.
Union Pizza Co. did a great job of using the movement created by the plate to make this humble dish interesting. You can’t help but move your eye around the dish, taking in each component.
Without the grid mark pattern, see if you can spy the rule of thirds.
Using the rule of thirds for photos is so common that there is an option on your phone to use it when taking any photo.
Just go into settings and select camera; once you’re in camera settings, scroll down to the composition section and select “Grid.”
This is what it looks like on an Apple iPhone.
Go to your camera, and you should now have the grid mark over your camera screen.
Photographs are incredibly persuasive when people are selecting food, so take your time creating images for your restaurant menu.
If you don’t have time or the idea of taking your own photos is overwhelming, jump on Google and find a local photographer. It might cost money, but the results will quickly pay for themselves.
Pictures are only half the battle, though—to really win people over, you need to use words that get people hungry.
2. Use Descriptive Words That Sell
Writing for your menu is much more than just stating the dish's name—though that is part of it.
Customers, whether they realize it or not, love description words that help tell a story of what the food is and where it came from.
Here are the key elements to writing your menu.
- Be concise
- Use adjectives
- Use a location or backstory
Since we’re about to cover being concise with your menu description, the same goes for your menu in general. Huge menus, like the ones TGI Fridays and The Cheese Cake Factory are known for, do not perform well.
The information collected from POS systems shows that menus with 50-100 food items receive 60%-70% of their food sales from just 18-24 menu items. A bigger menu means guests are spending more time looking through the menu, which results in slow table turner over and less overall profits.
Cutting the menu down also means you spend way less money on perishable food inventory. You’ll save a ton of money and flip tables faster.
If you want to see the power of a simple menu, go to In N Out. The menu is as barebones as it gets, and they are hugely successful—and customers move through the line super fast.
Make your descriptions concise.
It can be tempting to give long descriptions of your food, packed with added details of preparation and execution. While these are important to include, you must pare it down to the most essential components.
The same goes in the other direction— you have to say more than just “garden salad” or “cheeseburger.” You must add enough information to hook the customer and create an emotional response.
Like the Lasagna from Ottavio’s Italian Restaurant.
The food description tells you the ingredients, how it’s cooked, and the way it’s constructed. There isn’t too much information on any aspect of the dish and just enough detail to trigger a mouthwatering response.
Speak to the senses.
Being concise makes a powerful description, but the correctly placed word that speaks to our five senses can have a persuasive effect on guests.
Using these words helps to build a picture in the customer's mind of what they will experience if they choose a specific menu item.
You get the idea—words that add another layer of flavor or texture to your description.
Ottavio’s Italian Restaurant uses the word savory to describe their Arancini rice balls.
Another way to make your description more engaging is with words related to preparation.
In the example above, Ottavio’s Italian Restaurant tells you the rice balls are fried. Other words to characterize preparation include:
- Slow roasted
Talkin’ Tacos does this with their Carne Asada Tacos.
The Carne Asada Taco description is only 8 words, but the 2 words that describe the preparation make the tacos far more appealing.
Let your food tell a story.
People love a story or setting. We love to know that the food came from somewhere special, that it’s unique, and that we are about to experience a meal that was made from ingredients that have integrity and a history of being high quality.
Who doesn’t want to eat Japanese Wagyu beef that’s been dry-aged for 60 days? It speaks volumes of what goes into making it special.
When there’s an opportunity to highlight or share a little bit of backstory on a menu item, do it—just don’t overdo it.
Union Pizza Co. does a great job with its secret sauce meatball sandwich description.
When I see “house-made secret recipe,” I know that I’m about to eat a unique sandwich, and when I sit down to devour it, I’m going to have an elevated experience.
Sharing where ingredients come from is another way to get people excited about the menu.
This is the dinner menu from The Observatory in Portland, OR, a well-known food destination.
Notice that nearly every protein on the menu names the farm from which it came. It tells people what region the meat came from, and it’s of high enough quality that it’s worth stating the name of the farm.
Don’t overdo this approach, though. Only add locations that enhance the menu item; if the description goes on too long, people will simply skip over it.
Begin by writing out a complete detailed description of your menu item. Then go back through and see what you can cut out without changing the overall description of the dish. Pare it down to its most basic but engaging description, and leave it at that.
3. Use A Strategic Menu Layout
Your menu is more than just a list of your restaurant’s food, drink, and prices. It’s one of your most valuable marketing tools, and the perfect layout can bring you more monthly profits.
We’ve covered all the information on what to put on your menu, but we haven’t covered how to arrange it so it’s easy to read and customers don’t get confused by what you offer.
It’s not super complicated, but it is very strategic.
The first step is to know that guests don’t pick up a menu and read it like a book—they scan it.
Make your menu scannable.
What’s interesting is that most human beings have a tendency to scan menus in the same pattern.
It looks something like this:
Now, this example is for a three-paneled menu, but even if it’s a two or one-paneled menu, the pattern will be the same.
We will leverage this information when we design our restaurant menu by strategically placing menu items along this pattern.
Since the upper right corner is one of the first places the eye travels, it’ll benefit you to place menu items that you want to sell quickly or more often.
In this example, you can see that the most expensive “gourmet burgers” menu items were placed in the “sweet spot” of the menu.
Harnessing this technique is great for perishable items as well. If you sell seafood, which has a notoriously short shelf life, placing it in the upper right corner will help move your product more quickly, resulting in less food waste.
Something else you might notice is how easy it is to navigate this menu because of the headers.
Categorize your menu items.
We now know to keep our menu descriptions concise yet engaging, but it also helps to categorize your menu items.
Categorizing your menu makes retaining information much easier for your guests. Mixing appetizers in with entrees can get confusing, and when going to order, they might find it difficult to relocate a starter they wanted and just give up.
A missed opportunity for another sale.
It’s effortless to read this example since each category is clearly labeled with a larger red font lettering.
This is a fairly large menu, and you don’t need to label each specific kind of food as its own category.
For example, if you only have a handful of entrees and appetizers, just name the sections “Entrees,” “Starters,” and “soups & salads.”
Like this example here.
The idea is to make reading the menu as effortless as possible. If a customer wants soup on a cold day, a menu like this takes them right to the soup. They’ll also know that all the soup you offer is in that one section, not hiding somewhere else on the menu.
Add a prominent CTA to your online menu.
One area where a lot of restaurants drop the ball is their online menu. Usually, there will be a menu button that, when pushed, pops up with a PDF that customers can then read.
This is clunky and outdated. If your customers want to order food online or at least check out the menu, a PDF isn’t inspiring, and it’s a missed opportunity to show off your food.
This menu by Urban Tap is well-made for a dine-in restaurant experience, but online customers need an intuitive way to take action on what they see.
What do you do if you want to order?
Do you call?
Can you place the order online through their system?
Making your online menu both informative and actionable is the best way to show customers what you offer while at the same time providing steps to complete an order.
This is the first page guests see when they land on the website for Union Pizza Co.
In a matter of seconds, customers can see what the food looks like (delicious), how much it will cost, and the variety of foods offered by the navigation menu on the left side of the screen.
Categorizing the foods Unions Pizza Co. offers into this easy-to-read navigation menu saves customers time and frustration trying to find menu items besides pizza.
Because you’re using an online space, you aren’t limited by the physical barriers of a handheld menu, which means you should have a picture of each menu item.
Customers will think, “I want that,” and either put an order in right then or jump in the car and head down to the restaurant.
4. Choose The Right Pricing
Setting menu prices can feel like playing darts with a blindfold on. You can know the general area of the target, but as you throw darts, you have to hope you’re hitting the mark.
While doing this side of owning a restaurant isn’t as fun as creating new dishes and serving food to tables of smiling faces, it is paramount to the success of your business.
Once you dig into it, you’ll see that it’s not that difficult.
Look at your competitor's prices.
Scoping out what your competitors are charging will give you a good idea of what the overall market price is for your region.
Meaning the average price for whatever style of food you offer.
For example, if you own a burger joint, look into how much your competitors charge for burgers. Typically, they will all be around the same price, and this will give a good idea of what to charge for your burger.
When you’re out doing reconnaissance work, though, pay attention to details like the quality of food they sell.
If the burger spot ten blocks from you sells burgers for $5 more than the average price around town, there’s a good chance they use high-quality ingredients.
If they DON’T use high-quality ingredients, but it’s expensive, you know not to price your menu around that average.
The reason for doing this leg work is so you have a good idea of what customers are willing to pay for a burger in your area. A burger in Manhattan is going to be more expensive than a burger in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Let’s look at the two ways to set your menu prices correctly.
How to use “cost-plus pricing.”
This is the most basic approach to pricing your menu, and it’s used by more than just the restaurant industry.
In the cost-plus pricing model, restaurant owners need to figure out the total cost to produce their menu items.
We’ve been using a burger as an example, so we’ll stick with that. What does it cost to create this burger?
We need to include each individual ingredient and what it costs per burger. That includes the dollop of mayo you use, which might only cost .05 cents a burger, but it adds up over time.
Also, don’t forget the labor it costs to cook and build the burgers, along with any packaging that might go along with serving the dish. If you wrap each burger with wax paper, you’ll want to include the cost per sheet.
Ok, now that we have the cost of the burger added up, let’s now see what the price will be at a 28%-35% markup—the target numbers for most restaurants.
The formula will look like this.
Let’s say the burger costs $4.35 to make, including labor and packaging.
Because we want to get the most from our menu item, we’ll set a markup of 35%.
The math will look like this: 4.35 ÷ .35 = 12.43
We’ll then round up to $12.50 to make the price look more attractive, and now you have the menu price for your burger.
Cost plus pricing is a simple and easy way to see what your menu pricing will look like, but taking this approach to every food item is oversimplifying the whole process and it can be a missed opportunity on items that could make you a lot more money.
For example, french fries are very cheap to produce, easy to make, and very popular. Let’s say it only costs you $1.09 to produce an order of fires. Even at 35%, which is an amazing number for food costs, the menu price would be about $3.
Having gathered information from your competitors, you’ll see they charge at least $5 per order of fries. This is why you need to be aware of prices in your local market. You can easily put a mark up of 50% on the fries and customers will still happily pay.
The best way to avoid situations like this is to use the second model of pricing, called market minus pricing.
How to use “market minus pricing.”
To begin the market minus pricing model, you must ask two questions.
- What will the market pay for this product?
- What are my competitors charging?
The answer to these questions will help you determine the highest amount you can charge your customers while still providing value.
For example, if all the other burger joints in your area charge anywhere from $12-$18 for a burger, you’ll then need to pick a price point that will work well for your restaurant in that price range.
Let’s say $15 a burger at a food cost of 30% to provide a mix of quality and value—meaning we want to create a burger that costs 30% of the $15 we charge customers
We then work backward to see what the cost of the burger will be—which is $4.50.
The math will look like this: 15 x .30 = $4.50
The next step is to build the best burger possible within that price range. Giving your customers the biggest size and highest quality ingredients available.
When using the market minus pricing model, it’s totally normal to try different ingredients/recipes or possibly adjust the numbers until you find a balanced food cost that reflects a product you are happy with.
The idea is that prices will vary significantly from market to market, so starting with the end price and working backward ensures that you aren’t leaving any money on the table.
A burger can cost as low as $2 on a value meal or as high as $30 in a five star hotel. The price doesn’t matter. What matters is what your customers are willing to pay.
5. Show Social Proof To Build Trust
Social proof is often overlooked by restaurants even though the power and influence of it have been online for years.
I’m talking about Yelp.
People have turned to Yelp for almost two decades to see what customers are saying about restaurants they find interesting.
What’s shocking is that most restaurants still haven’t embraced the idea of sharing their own social proof right on their menu so potential customers can see what previous guests have experienced right away.
Most potential guests will look up a restaurant website online, and if looks interesting, they’ll then turn to Yelp to see what others have to say. Don’t let random people on Yelp influence your would-be guests.
Take control of the situation and keep them on your site with your own social proof.
Like Ottavio’s Italian Restaurant does with their online menu.
An awesome five star review is one of the first things guests see when they land on Ottavio’s website.
Let’s see how we can collect and use your own social proof to win more customers.
How to collect social proof.
We’ve already covered one of the places to collect social proof—Yelp. But you can also cruise on Google to look for positive reviews.
These online locations are the wild west for reviews, but you can be sure people will be very honest with their feedback.
While this is a great way to get started, you can collect more social proof by allowing customers to leave a review each time they order.
Owner.com does this automatically with each order put in by a customer. Trying to do this manually just isn’t possible, so when customers order, they’ll see a prompt like this one here.
Of course, this is before they get their food, so the prompt is going to be pretty subtle. We send another low-profile request for a review with the order confirmation email.
Once the food has been delivered or a customer has picked it up for takeout, we then send a final email with a direct request for a review. This is the optimal time since the entire experience will be fresh in their minds.
You can copy this same process to have new reviews coming in daily to use as social proof or to help point out problem areas of your restaurant that need to be addressed.
When placed properly, social proof can trigger people’s FOMO—fear of missing out.
Leverage customers’ FOMO.
It’s human nature to seek out what others around you are experiencing. It’s one of the reasons social media is so popular.
Sharing social proof in advantageous places can bring out people’s FOMO and push them to participate in menu items others are raving about.
For example, Union Pizza Co. allows customers to leave reviews per menu item on their online menu. The review, “best deep dish in LA,” can be the tipping point for a customer who is on the fence about whether to order.
Union Pizza Co. also places five-star reviews on their home page so curious guests can get first-hand accounts of happy customer experiences.
FOMO is what drives people to take action, and we’ve all felt it at some point in our lives. Whether it’s a popular food item, concert, or movie, we all love connecting with others over a shared experience.
If you want to kick social proof and FOMO into overdrive, reach out to an influencer to review your restaurant.
Work with influencers to reach a wider audience.
Using the trusted reputation of an influencer is one of the strongest forms of social proof you can use.
While reaching out to an influencer might seem like an unusual way to craft and enhance your menu, the results could catapult your profits to unseen heights.
People follow and trust social influencers based on their personalities and actions. When viewers see their favorite content creator genuinely enjoying and promoting your restaurant, it will push new customers to experience it for themselves.
Talkin’ Tacos did this with professional food eater and world record holder for most food challenge wins, Randy Satel.
Talkin’ Tacos asked Randy to participate in the “40 x 40 Birria Taco Food Challenge.” People who attempt the food challenge have 40 minutes to eat 40 tacos, which Randy succeeded in.
The video was released on Randy’s YouTube channel, which has 1.5 million followers, and Talkin’ Tacos uses the video on their website to win over more customers.
By working with Randy, Talkin’ Tacos was able to reach an audience of 1.5 million potential customers who have an active and engaged interest in whatever Randy eats.
Finding social influencers shouldn’t be too difficult, and more than likely, you’ll turn to social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram.
Randy, who has a huge YouTube following, also has 1 million followers on TikTok, 255k followers on Instagram, and 1.8 million followers on FaceBook. Collaborating with the right influencer can yield tremendous results and profits.
If you have no idea how to approach using social media, check out our Complete Guide To Social Media For Restaurants.
Five Menu Templates For Dine-In
Starting a dine-in menu from scratch is daunting, time-consuming, and not very efficient. Restaurants have been making menus for decades, so why not use tried and true templates to save you time and headaches?
Simple template for menus that change often.
If you have a menu that leans heavily on seasonal foods and sustainability, you’ll have to change your food items often. Keeping your template simple helps to make changes quick and easy, especially if you have new specials every week.
Must Have Menus also allows you to adjust colors and fonts to blend with your restaurant's branding.
Trifold menu for additional information.
The trifold menu by Freepik gives you the maximum space to place any information you need to share with your guests.
Along with the list of menu items, there’s plenty of space to add pictures of your most popular food items, contact information, links to your social media, and customer reviews (social proof).
Trifold menus are especially useful as takeout menus. You’ll have the required space to print any all information customers need to place an order or contact the restaurant.
Highlight your most popular menu items with pictures.
The clean and fresh menu by Canva allows your restaurant to visibly show your most popular or eye-catching menu items.
The image at the top is of a fried egg which would be great for a breakfast or brunch spot, but you can easily change the graphic and colors while keeping the easy-to-read layout.
Use boxes to help menu items stand out.
This template by iMenuPro uses boxed outlines or different colored backgrounds to make menu items stand out. You could do this for any menu item you want to promote, are popular, or foods for people with diet restrictions, like gluten-free foods.
For example, if you have an extremely popular sandwich that brings in a lot of customers, putting it in one of these boxes will take a customer’s eye directly to the menu item that brought them in the first place. You’re making it easier for your customer to place an order.
In the template example, they use boxes as a new menu item alert and to notify guests they can get a smaller version of a large salad.
Use headers that stand out.
The headers on this menu by Must Have Menus make it incredibly easy to navigate. In a matter of seconds, you can see everything that’s offered, and it doesn’t take much effort to do it.
In fact, this menu has it all.
It’s scannable, uses descriptive words, and has mouthwatering photos. The only thing missing is social proof, but because it’s a template, you can add customer reviews to your own version.
Next Steps: Improve Your Restaurant Marketing
You can now create your own restaurant’s menu to convert more customers and increase profits. It’ll take some work, but the effort is worth the outcome.
With 77% of diners checking a restaurant’s website before going out to eat, it’s imperative that you have a rock-solid menu for customers to browse that converts them into guests.
If you're serious about increasing your restaurant profits, then the next step is to improve your restaurant marketing.
Check out our Complete Guide To Restaurant Marketing and learn how you can use software to automate most of our proven process.
Our all-in-one-platform helps you take back control of your online presence, drive direct sales, save money on fees, and manage everything in one place. Schedule a demo to see the platform in action and discover why our new restaurant partners increase online sales by an average of 270% in their first three months using Owner.com.Schedule A Demo