Menu Planning

Posted on In Focus May 2008 - by Tandoori Magazine
Menu Planning

Food writer and restaurant menu consultant Mridula Baljekar tells Tandoori how to compose menus.

Planning your restaurant’s menu is at the heart of your food offer.

You have to know what dishes to put on and how many, the ingredients that will be used, how to price them and achieve an overall composition that will result in a balanced menu. Some of it will be common sense and some will come with experience. Either way, your menu will just be one of the key factors that will make your customers return to you or not come back to you at all.

The initial point to bear in mind is the style and concept of your restaurant and how the menu will fit into that. So if your restaurant is a neighbourhood restaurant that is offering food for the masses then chances are you will have a menu with familiar items and price level which are affordable.

If it is a vegetarian restaurant with lots of snack items and vegetarian curries and no fancy surroundings and a suburban location, you are likely to keep your price levels on the cheap side. However, if the restaurant is aiming for an upmarket London West End concept then your dishes will have to be in according style and the same with prices.

So remember who your clientele base is and what you and your staff can or can’t cope with and fit your menu to meet their requirements.

I would advise restaurateurs not to have an extensive menu. It’s better to change it more often than just having the same continuing one for a whole year. Ideally, it ought to be around half a dozen dishes or so in each category, so about six starters, six to eight mains, six sides and about a handful of desserts.

Generally, it’s the dry, snack-like items which are best for starters. These can include various kebabs, samosas, bhajis and so on. Some restaurants like to include tikka items too, while others will put them in the tandoori section. It helps if you are creative and the chef can include more imaginative fare, rather than just the familiar stuff. Also, ensure that the starters are accompanied by a chutney and garnish of salad.

With mains, there needs to be a balanced spread between the types of meat being used. There need to be red meat dishes, poultry, seafood and game, particularly venison. Salads should also play a part in both the starter list and mains. Not enough restaurateurs pay enough attention to this aspect. In total, have no more than three maximum on the menu. Good restaurants should also be conscious of including chef’s specials on their menu. Not only do such dishes veer from the a la carte list, but they also demonstrate the talents of the chef.

The trick though is not to have too many dishes which are classified as chef’s specials. Otherwise, you end up de-valuing the menu and the attraction is lost. On the whole, chef’s specials shouldn’t consist of any more than two to four dishes. They should of course change quite often though it’s dependent on the restaurant whether they should be on the menu daily or as most prefer, on a weekly basis. Fresh market produce is a good source of making chef’s specials.

Seasonal ingredients are essential to these. For a restaurant to have a seasonally inspired menu gives the establishment a unique angle. There is no reason at all why chefs can’t be more receptive to seasonal produce. From vegetables to game and fish, there is always a lot of variety to choose from. You only have to ask some of your suppliers or just look up on the internet what’s in season in any given month.

The health and nutritional content of a menu is very important, particularly in this day and age. It would be unrealistic to expect restaurant menus to be entirely fat-free and nutritious. But restaurant dishes need to have less oil, be free of ghee and there needs to be greater variety of items like grilled fish and vegetables. Where possible, restaurants should also endeavour to have a short vegan section on the menu.

Desserts in Indian restaurants always offer a challenging prospect as they have traditionally had a reputation for being heavy and sweet. Thankfully, with so many talented chefs working in the Indian restaurant sector today, desserts have improved a lot. Imagination here is essential. Don’t just stick to the tried and tested formula of cheap kulfis and gulab jamans. Source from good quality manufacturers if you are not going to have home-made ones.

Also, be more flexible in your approach. Rather than having the usual kulfi flavours, during summertime, add a little twist by having a summer berry kulfi. It shows that you are making good use of seasonal ingredients. Having European influences in desserts helps because it makes customers more receptive in wanting to try them. Subtly flavoured desserts work best, compared to syrupy and very sugary ones.

Pricing your dishes is something that requires a great deal of thought and can have a long term impact on how your business turns out. Don’t frighten your customers away by having excessive price levels. Then again, you are in the business to make money, but you have to gage the kind of customer base you have and the price bands they are willing to pay. Know in your mind the kind of profit margins you are looking to achieve.

Always ensure that the dishes on the menu have been rigorously tested, both in terms of ease of preparation and speed, along with taste.

Be well aware that the layout and writing style of the menu is clear and concise. Don’t get too fussy because ultimately, it’s the contents that will matter most. But also, don’t use off-putting colours – neutral hues are best – and elaborate fonts. Keep it simple. Don’t get overly descriptive with dishes either.

Two short sentences with well-chosen words will suffice. The main thing to remember is that whatever you say in your description should make customers tempted to order the dish. You need to make them salivate with anticipation, not leave their table and walk out!


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