Psychology of Menu Design

For small restaurants and bars, every penny counts and losing sight of your costs can significantly impact your bottom line. Get to know the tools and resources available to help you track and reduce your food costs below.

Where to start with your menu design: Identify your target audience

As a the owner of a small bar or restaurant, your menu isn’t just a piece of paper – it’s your sales pitch. A great menu should not only present your products clearly to your customers, but should also be a method you can use to maximise profits. The key to hitting these objectives is to get inside the minds of your patrons following some simple psychological techniques.

Psychology factors into so many aspects of the restaurant experience, from the choice of your decor, smallwares, music and lighting to your staff culture and their attire. Menu design is no exception. By taking into consideration some basic human traits and behaviours, you can tap into the wants and needs of your patrons, all in a way that works to your advantage as a restaurant.

In the time it takes to whip up your favourite entrée, this post will take you through actionable steps on how to implement psychology within your menu design. Once complete, you’ll be able to create a menu that boosts profits and upsells with ease.

Your restaurant is a business, and all businesses must have a clear idea of who they are targeting within their products, services and marketing. 

Every element of your new menu should have your target customer in mind. When designing your menu, you need to think about who is going to be spending money with you, and how you can encourage them to spend even more.

Your team and those in charge of designing your menu must know: 

  • The theme of the restaurant
  • The type of cuisine served
  • The level of formality 
  • How much you anticipate each diner spending
  • Typical age range of your customers
  • Typical habits or interests of customers
  • and most importantly: the profitability of each of your menu items.

Before undertaking a menu design, start by creating a brief that addresses each of these points. When everyone involved in the process is on the same page, mistakes will be far less likely.

What a good menu should do

We all know that food is not just available at your restaurant. It’s cheaper to eat at home. So why is eating out still so enjoyable for your customers? 

The answer lies in the one thing that can’t be replicated elsewhere – the experience.

So when it comes to approaching menu design, you should seek to capitalise on those aspects of your bar or restaurant that keep people coming back for more: the things you do so well that they can’t find at home. Ultimately this is what your customers are really paying for. So don’t be shy in reflecting this within your menu design. 

Whether you own a restaurant, cafe or bar, your menu should do the following basic things: 

  • Entice hungry customers
  • Increase sales and profitability
  • Streamline your kitchen operations
  • Create customer satisfaction that encourages loyalty

Establishing a price structure for your menu

Before diving into the creative elements of your menu, you need to determine how each of your items will be priced. 

Psychology wise, your patrons have already made the decision that they will be eating out, so they already expect to pay more for their food. It’s now up to you to use your menu to create opportunities for your restaurant which will up their spend. Plus, justify the higher costs through perceived value. 

No two restaurants will have the same pricing model. So a great place to start is to consider your niche as a restaurant, along with your target clientele. 

If prices are on the higher side, then is the food served and the overall experience worthy of this? 

Likewise, if you are wanting to target the value-oriented customer, then how can you still keep things profitable? 

The final price structure must address these potential issues. Even if that does mean having flexible pricing depending on the day, hours of the day or similar variables. Just make sure there’s a solid foundation behind your logic. 

Ensuring profitability

Unless your restaurant is turning a healthy profit, your business won’t survive. How you price your menu items will be a determining factor in whether you sink or swim, so now is the time to work out your overheads. 

Established restaurants may have an existing pricing structure that works well. However, newer restaurants will need to list and price up every item from scratch, along with any deals or specials. All costs must be accounted for. 

Handy tip: Create a spreadsheet for every item or deal like so. This will help you to determine whether the pricing is correct, and if so, how much profit each item is expected to bring. The results will also influence where each item is placed on the menu itself. 


Initial cost (per portion)

Overheads (total)

Menu price

Total profit






Your overhead (per menu item) is the main section to focus on, since these costs are non-negotiable. Include every single expense involved in producing that item. So as well as the cost of the ingredient, think about how it needs to contribute towards rent, utilities, taxes, labour costs etc. 

You can then work out how many of each item you’d need to sell in a day to cover your overheads in total, ensuring it’s a realistic goal in line with your pricing model. 

In addition, financial forecasting can also help you to work out your most profitable times of the year vs quieter times to ensure your finances remain on track. 

Price theory and decoys

People always welcome a perceived bargain or deal when dining out, so how can you make this seem like this is the case, without dipping into your profit margins? 

Some tactics to consider within your menu design include:

  • The use of “limited-time offers”, “specials”
  • Avoiding using dollar signs
  • A price that end in .95
  • Price anchoring

Deals can also be used to promote lesser performing items or can reduce the impact of stock issues (i.e. too much stock has been ordered of a particular item)

Mastering the art of menu engineering

Menu engineering considers where people’s attention is most likely to fall on the page. Items are then categorised by profitability and popularity in response.

Likewise, menu engineering can also help restaurants to improve profitability on underperforming items. That’s because poor placement could be the real reason why certain items aren’t being ordered.

Hospitality professional @Darrra_O highlighted another important angle of menu engineering saying: “So many restaurants have bogus menus they can’t sustain. It’s not a good look when over half of the items on your menu are unavailable. Keep your menus simple, create a signature dish and maintain quality. Also, conduct menu engineering every 3 months for checks and balances.”

Create effective menu item placement through menu engineering analysis

Menu engineering is about getting the right items put in the right place on your menu. By ‘right place’, this means where the most popular and profitable items are easiest to spot. 

To get started with menu engineering, refer back to your spreadsheet that allows you to calculate the food cost and profit margin of each item. Categorise all menu items by their profitability and popularity. Based on these results, you can then engineer your menu according to what is the most profitable.

Menu engineering is an ongoing process, so ensure to include a plan for maintenance and optimization. For example, finding a time once a month to compare your menu against the results on your spreadsheet to see where the most impact is on the page, and whether or not the strategy is correct. 

Don’t forget that seasons or holidays may also impact what people are craving, which is why your menu should be regularly tweaked to avoid missing out on where the current demand is. 

Menu matrix analysis

Once you have your data, you can then create a menu matrix. This is a visual representation of your best and worst-performing items.

Doordash expertly explains how to do a menu matrix analysis, based on the following four key principles:

  • High profitability + high popularity = Stars (placed on the upper right)
  • Low profitability + high popularity = Horses (placed on the upper left)
  • High profitability + low popularity = Puzzles (placed on the lower right)
  • Low profitability + low popularity = Dogs (placed on the lower left)  

Depending on the results of your restaurant menu matrix analysis, you can consider removing items from the menu altogether, switching up the hierarchy, or making changes to the ingredients or prices of certain dishes to make lower-performing items more popular. 

You’ll also know which items to leave alone to avoid making costly mistakes to your menu (i.e. any ‘stars’).  

The golden triangle

When we look at a menu, our eyes typically move to the middle first before travelling to the top right corner and then finally to the top left. This is known as ‘the golden triangle’ by menu engineers and graphic designers alike since these three areas are where you’ll find the dishes with the highest profit margins.

So what we don’t want are your sides or other low profit items being placed in these headline sections. Instead, the golden triangle needs to put profitable items front and centre. 

Limiting choices

When we are hungry we are in search of a quick solution. Having too many choices makes the journey from A to B too complicated, which is why simplified choices are the way to go. A great strategy is to keep the number of items per section under 7, as our brains can’t process any more options than this. 

An added benefit for a small restaurant or a small bar is that by limiting the number of dishes on your menu, you can reduce your overheads as a business, not to mention the pressures on your kitchen. 

Now is the time to think about your star menu choices, so that the most popular options are what stands out. 

Creative & visual aspects of your menu design

You know who your target customer is, and you know how much you’d like the average customer to spend to make a profit. Now, it’s a case of infusing these ideals within the creative elements of your menu design to make it a reality. 

Humans are visual creatures. The appearance of your menu in terms of the layout, colour use, and font choices all need to be considered. Specifically, how the design can facilitate the psychology of both hunger and the willingness to spend money in solving that hunger.

Colour theory

Did you know that every colour has associations connected with it? 

The types of colours appropriate for your restaurant menu will depend on its niche, i.e. fast food, traditional, fine dining or even themed restaurants. This also connects with your restaurant branding as a whole. 

For example, bright colours are commonly used in the fast food industry, as they subliminally connect with the idea of speed and excitement. McDonald’s use of red and yellow is in fact to symbolise their fries and ketchup. Red is a stimulating colour, thus increasing our heart rate, which is why it’s also commonly used by restaurants as well. 

In contrast, one colour which isn’t a great choice for menu design is blue, since blue has an association with mould within the food industry. As well as being widely considered the most unappetizing colour, blue can even reduce feelings of hunger.

Top tip: Avoid heavy colour use in the background of your menu, as this may make it difficult to read your menu. 


Similar to colours, fonts also have different associations with them, making some more suitable than others depending on the theme of your restaurant or small pub and its intended clientele. 

If you aren’t hiring a graphic designer with typographic skills to choose your menu fonts, then you’ll need to spend some time studying these meanings. 

Aspects to consider include font choice(s), font size, text alignment and the space between words and letters. In short: Your text needs to be clear for everyone to read.

Simplicity is key

Nobody likes being overwhelmed when browsing a menu. So, you need to think carefully about what really needs to go on the page, and what doesn’t add value from a visual perspective. 

Be sure to utilise white space and remove any unnecessary text or ingredient descriptions.

Online menu design

Don’t forget about your online menu design! In the digital age, it’s highly likely your patrons will check out your menu on your website or on social media before deciding whether or not to book a table. 

Some handy hints include:

  • Make sure your menu is easy to access on your website and social media pages, ideally visible on the page rather than a PDF which has to be downloaded. 
  • Ensure online menus follow responsive design principles, and are designed for screen not print, including the font and colour use (RGB). 
  • Integrate CTA buttons on your online menu, encouraging people to call to enquire or book a table directly to maximise ROI.

Own an independent restaurant, independent pub or independent bar? Intimate single location venues can often benefit from nostalgic menu design. 

So, be confident in experimenting with the themes that best cater to your clientele if you have anything special to offer up that can be alluded to within the design. 

Menu language

Are you selling a ‘beef burger with fries’, or a ‘Chargrilled Canadian Angus beef burger, cheddar, maple smoked bacon, topped with tomatoes, lettuce and crispy onions, served with homemade fries’?

Whether your restaurant cooks up burgers, fish, desserts or even vegan food, the language you use to describe your dishes should conjure an image that’s so enticing, it immediately makes people want to order it. This is especially the case if your menu doesn’t have a lot of imagery going on, as the descriptions will need to do all the work. 

Think about the type of food your restaurant serves up, and consider applicable power word adjectives that will truly sell what you have to offer. 

By the same token, keep item descriptions short and sweet to avoid confusing customers. 

Naming your dishes

Every item on your menu will need a headline to describe it, either consisting of one word or a short sentence. There should be a sense of pride in whatever name you give to your dishes. There’s also plenty of room to personalise the name in line with your restaurant theme or branding. 


Top tip: Remember that confused people don’t buy, so make sure that the names of items are easy to understand for your audience.

Continue to track your menu progress

All menus should be subject to regular scrutiny to see what’s working, and crucially what’s not. As a restaurant owner, ask yourself whether your current offering is generating the right results, or whether further tweaks are needed. 

Continue to track your sales, profitability, and food costs in your POS or other business records and adjust your strategy as needed. 

If you’re unsure, go back to the original goals we mentioned at the start, including whether your menu is enticing customers, boosting performance and streamlining the efforts of your kitchen. 

The more you are in tune with your customers and business as a whole, the easier it will be to align your goals with your actual menu offering. 

Menu design psychology: In Summary

Your menu design should seek to do two things: make people hungry and drive profits for your business. Considering the psychological elements in relation to menu design is about understanding what makes people hungry, and crucially what gets them to spend their money in your restaurant in relation to that hunger. Every design in terms of the wording, design and overall presentation must factor this in. 

Have an appetite for more tips, tricks and advice on all things restaurants? Halio Data is a free resource for hospitality businesses, where you can learn how to run a more profitable and successful business based on our expert industry advice. 

Be sure to bookmark this page, or follow us on social media to keep up to date with our latest posts. 


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