Organizing and Creating Exceptional Menus

Organizing and Creating Exceptional Menus

I have been thinking about and redesigning our menu from the bottom up for almost a year now. I believe that in order for a menu to be truly exceptional, it must go beyond the food. The menu is the #1 most used paper item and promotional material we have. We print thousands of them each year. People take them home and use them to order takeout dozens of times. Business executives take them back to the office, where many of them keep the menu in their take-out folders, always ready to be used and re-used time and again. It goes without saying, then, that the menu is perhaps the most important “physical” marketing tool we have, ranking up there with the web site.

So the question I asked myself is this: How can we make the menu better? Well, you should include the story of how it all began. You should include the mission statement briefly, and summarize what we stand for and what the Zankou Chicken brand is all about. You can invite people to join our team in a brief section, since we are always hiring. You can also mention how we give back to the community every month through our 20% fundraising program. This is where we invite people to fundraise with us and donate up to 20% of all receipts that exceed $1,000 in sales. We can advise them to speak to a manager for details so that we can keep the look of the menu clean and efficient. We used to pass out fliers for these fundraisers, but including it briefly in the menu illuminates the need to do that, saving us time and money in addition to giving our brand more exposure to schools and other non-profits that may be interested in working with us.

Since the paper menu is a 24/7, practical marketing tool, it can do all of this for us while at the same time helping us up-sell to customers. This is called “pull” marketing. It is not “push” marketing because it is done in a subtle and beautiful way, being suggestive but not overbearing. All of this will make a menu that is a go-to device for all things, being rebuilt from the “ground-up” to be an amazing method to get our message across to the consumer. We can also distinguish the fact that not all Zankous are made the same. Our team only operates the locations listed on they menu, and pointing this out would assure people to only visit those locations. These are the locations listed on the paper menu and our web site, the one stat assure consumers the authentic Zankou experience people have come to trust for over 50 years. Since many people never visit the web site, it would benefit us to list this fact on the menu.


Over the years we have been consistently improving our menu. We recently created a catering menu from scratch. How did we do it? In order to create a beautiful and useful menu, you need to use both your analytical (left brain) and artistic (right brain) skills. You can use your own vision for the project, but I highly recommend you don’t do the photography yourself but hire a professional. I like to take my time and make the menu as aesthetically appealing as possible, using photography first and leaving the complete layout for later.   There are three things you should do for effective menu marketing:

  • Make it easy for people to buy more often from you, and to purchase the high-profit margin items more often. Train staff to always upsell the high profit margin items.
  • Keep customers both entertained and educated as they are making their purchasing decisions.
  • Use a lot of photography. People are visual creatures; you will find that those items with photos will outsell those items without pictures.



Because love encompasses everything, nothing is unimportant, including tonight’s dinner menu. Think about it for a minute. If you were pure love, the loving parent of all life, how would you want people to eat? —Victoria Moran

One of the first things I did at Zankou Chicken many years ago was to take the POS system and organize it better. About 12 years ago, we used to use those old Casio cash registers. They didn’t have anything like the sophisticated computers inside the POS systems we use today. Those old Casios had very limited sales and printout menu, where they basically just gave you a breakdown of sales and how each menu item contributed to the sales in the form of a percentages. This is how we determined what was selling most and least, and in those days, having that much information was enough for us. Now we use sophisticated POS systems that help us monitor sales per hour, see which cashier is using it at any given time, monitor sales charts specifically tied to the catering menu, keep tabs on food and paper costs, as well as helping the cashiers to upsell.

Like a Puzzle

One problem was that on the Casio, we had items organized in a completely random manner. You would have a whole chicken on the top left, half chicken beneath it, and then the half chicken plate was way off to the right. The vegetarian dishes like falafel plates and wraps, hummus, and mutabbal were all over the place. The reason for this was that we were just adding items to the menu as they came along. No one had stopped and asked the question: “Why are these items placed on the cash register in this order?”

A haphazardly created menu system is sure to anger customers, create mistakes in the ordering process, and creates a bad system that potentially loses customers. Imagine that you have hired a new cashier; she has to train for 2 weeks just to learn all the items by heart, and not having them categorized into families of similar items makes her training take longer than necessary, losing efficiency.

The first thing I did was to take a physical printout of all the menu items. I cut out each item on the menu, and spread it across the table in small, square boxes. At the time, it was about 72 menu items total. I took my time placing them all together in families of items grouped by similarity. The sides were all together now: hummus, falafel, mutabbal, tahini salad, tabouleh, cabbage salad and garden salad.

Then came the meats: Shawerma plate, shawerma sandwich, shish kabob and luleh kabob (ground beef). Then I placed all of the poultry items together: whole rotisserie chicken, half chicken, the quarter white and dark plates and so on. It took me a few hours. When I was done I looked at the entire new picture I had carefully pieced together. It looked beautiful, like a grand painting with small pieces of the puzzle glued together.

Making it well Organized

I made it as organized as possible, having the drinks and extras placed right next to the “cash” button for making upselling easier. Then I placed all the random items we don’t sell often like the T-shirts and items from the secret menu. Finally, it was easy to use and easy to train new cashiers.

The last thing I did before we implemented this new layout was to color-coordinate the items in separate categories. I painted the menu items their corresponding colors, which are easy to distinguish. Yellow was for all the chicken items, green for the vegetarian entrees, red for the meats, orange for the marinated chicken, and pink for the pickled turnips.

We began to use the new layout formula as soon as I was able to make it and re-program the Casio systems. A nice old man named Roy Jensen helped me organize and implement it. Roy would spend hours helping me get it right and carefully programmed the POS systems in the late evening hours, after we had closed up and everyone went home. I remember feeling so accomplished once we had completely streamlined the menu.

Customer Feedback

The feedback we got was awesome. The cashiers were punching out orders faster and, as a result customers were getting their food quicker and with fewer mistakes in their orders, with upselling becoming easier. Everything was streamlined; we were able to fix an old and antiquated system nobody had bothered updating for decades. Does this sound familiar to you? Maybe it’s time you looked at your menu and made some changes.

Upselling Made Easy

Maybe you can program in some questions that pop up to aid cashiers as they sell. One example can be, assuming a customer orders a whole chicken with sides, the POS system can remind the cashier that there is a “Big Family Meal®” that comes with these items and can offer the customer a discount. This is a great upsell because the customer will be thrilled to get the deal and will become more loyal. Someone that was thinking about ordering only one side might order two since that’s what the “Family Meal” comes with. Someone ordering two chickens with sides will simply order a Big Family Meal®, since they know it’s a better value. Consider spelling out how much they would save; at the very least include the words “value” or “savings”. Ordering more should be made easy for your customers, and selling more should be simpler for the cashiers.

Creating a Catering menu

The most important ingredient of the new catering menu was the implementation of customers’ feedback. So many customers would call us every day asking if we had a catering menu. Since customers and fans would also do this regularly on social media, I decided to do a meeting with the family and proceed with the creation of an all-new catering menu. This was in 2011, when we had no catering menu to speak of. I studied sales charts, looked at all the numbers, analyzed the data, and then laid out a plan. I would focus on the highest selling items first, but I would not ignore the vegetarian items like the salad and the sides. The catering menu would have to accomplish 5 things.

  • Make it easier to order items in bulk
  • Save us time by illuminating the need to creatively put together large orders on the phone for customers. Now, customers would just order directly from the catering menu, and the cashiers can be more productive because they would not need to be creative.

One request I’d always gotten over the years was for a catering item that included everything on it. People would call and the conversation would go something like this:

Me: “Thank you for calling Zankou Chicken How may I help you?

Customer: “ Hi. I have about 20-25 people here and we’re just wondering, what can I order?”

Me: That depends on what everyone wants. Do they like chicken, or beef, kabob, or falafel?

Customer: “ I don’t know that’s a good question. Let me ask them hold on.” (5-7 minute wait)

Customer: “We want a little bit of everything. What do you have on the menu like that?

And that’s when I would say we have no such thing on the menu. We would go on talking for another 15-20 minutes just so I can help them figure out what they want. You can see how the catering menu saves us so much time now.

  • Save the customers’ money. Each item on the menu has built-in savings.
  • Help us upsell. By having a detailed catering menu, the cashiers can easily upsell to every customer. For example, if a customer asks for a variety of kabobs, they can offer the Kabob Party. If they are ordering one of practically everything, the cashier would offer them the Mediterranean Feast™.
  • Help introduce our brand to new customers. By ordering from us and using the catering menu, we helped introduce Zankou Chicken to hundreds and perhaps thousands of new customers. By creating an exciting and new catering menu, you can assure that your food reaches more people. Think of all the new people that will try your food at office parties or family gatherings.

Draw Out the Menu on Physical Paper

I went to the art store here in west LA we have called Blick, and bought one of those huge art pads. I drew a hypothetical catering menu, starting with just 6 items, which later became 8 and then 12. There’s something about drawing and writing by hand that gets my creative juices flowing. You can easily add to it, make notes on it, draw on it, scratch it out and write over it, or even put post-it notes of new ideas. It’s just something that will never, ever be replicated for me on any computer experience.

When we finally launched the catering menu in 2011 it was a resounding success. Remember the #1 rule of marketing: Always listen top the customer. Listen to what they are saying and implement it as best you can.

The catering menu took me over a year to make, and another year to perfect. I have recently finished a redesign of this menu, a project that started in January of 2014 and was launched in November of that year. That’s right it took me 11 months to re-design it. First I took a lot of pictures when we did 2 consecutive weekends of photo shoots in January. Then I did multiple meetings with me Photoshop illustrator when we decided which of the 300 shots were going to end up being used. Once we agreed on which shots to retouch, it boiled down to 8 new photos. Why would someone take 300 shots over two long weeks only to end up using only 8? Because that’s what it takes to gain mastery.

We focused on these 8 pictures and took about 2 weeks on each one, photo-shopping them to perfection. Only then was I ready to put them all together and create a beautiful front cover and back cover.

Menu Design

The menu is not just a piece of paper. It should contain as much powerful information and as many beautiful pictures of food as possible. Every inch of real estate on the menu is extremely valuable. Having said that, let’s look at all of the aspects that make a menu great and what should and shouldn’t be included in the menu. I have made this list as detailed as possible to help potential restaurateurs leave very little for guesswork. These are the various ingredients that make for an excellent menu:

Amazing Photography

The photos should be as beautiful as they are accurate. Don’t be like a lot of the fast food places that show succulent, plump burgers and serve customers microwaved junk. The photos have to be similar to what you actually serve the customers. This is called truth in advertising. Of course, you can hire a professional photographer and should also hire an expert Photoshop artist to make the pictures stand out, but they should be identical to what is being given to customers.

The Written Section

Consider hiring a copywriter or other professional storyteller to come up with a short background of how this restaurant began, what it believes in, and your company’s motto. All of this should be considered to be included in the menu. Remember, the menu is also advertising for your restaurant, one that people will take everywhere and consistently talk about.

The Introduction

Here we can talk about how the story began. For Zankou Chicken the story starts in Lebanon in 1962, where my grandfather opened a small chicken outlet in downtown Bourch Hammoud in Beirut’s Armenian quarter. From these humble beginnings we grew and came to the United States in 1982 and opened the Hollywood store in 1984. What’s your story? People want to know.

Trademark the food items

Consider getting trademarks from Washington, DC with the Patent and Trademark Office. You will protect your investment and ideas from potential predators who are always stealing ideas from the internet. For example our Trademark Tarna ® is the term we use for the marinated chicken shawerma. Can others make and sell chicken shawerma? Of course but they can’t call it Tarna®. This gives us the edge in that we have educated thousands of customers to look for this over the years.

Trademarking your items protects your concepts from the cheesy copycats out there too lazy to work hard on their own ideas.

List the Ingredients

Describe in detail what the food comes with, and what it’s made of. For example in our Mutabbal (Baba-Ganoush) we use organic eggplants. We use all natural spices and oils in the marinating of the tri-tip shawerma. We use USDA Choice or better quality meats. People want to know what’s in the food they’re eating.

Use Cool Logos and Stamps

Consider creating official looking logos and stamps custom made for your menu. For example all of our side dishes and salads are 100% vegan. This may sound boring if we are simply describing them as vegan. So we created a nice-looking stamp that is green (matches the perception of what is typically vegetarian or vegan) and we place this stamp alongside our side order section of the menu. Consider making stamps like 100% USDA quality steak or similar descriptions that are both easy to read and descriptive of the food.

Include the Web Site and Social Media

We just finished a 2-year, multi-phase update of our web site. When your web site is both inviting and beautiful, you really want as many people to visit it as possible. Social media is very important nowadays for customer conversion. You want more engagement, a greater amount of emails, and a high amount of shared content. Sometimes it’s hard for people to find your social channels, so now we list the addresses of our most important social media channels. For us right now it’s Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. We list our handle on Instagram and Twitter, which is ZankouChickenLA, and more people can easily find us so we can generate more leads.

Make sure the menu matches your brand

Many aspects of the menu design including the colors, fonts, stock photos, logos and backgrounds should all match the creative platform of your restaurant and web site. For example our logo colors are red and blue. Our uniform is a yellow T-shirt that simply says “Zankou” in a red font. We matched the catering menu to these colors. We used a lot of yellow and red, so now our menu matches our uniforms! It’s important to have consistency in the minds of your consumers.

Place the Menu Items Strategically

It is a good idea to know what are the highest profit margin items. This is determined through your accounting department. The best menu will be the result of the various departments in the organization working together. Here are a few things we can do to sell the best and most profitable items more:

  1. Target eyeballs to this item by placing it around a frame or a special color
  2. Make that photo a bit larger
  3. Place the items you want to upsell on the top left. People’s eyes travel to that area fastest and most. We know this because English readers read from left to right, and in almost every internet study we have determined that people look at most on top left-hand corner.
  4. Make the description for this item extra special

Use a Talented Graphic Artist

Every company needs a talented small team of full-time marketers and at least one excellent graphic artist. You don’t have to go to design school yourself; you just have to find the people that already know how to do it. I come up with most of our marketing ideas, but I am never the one that sits on the computer and creates the images on illustrator files.

Consider Menu Inserts

If you are running a bar or sports grill, this is especially true for you. The insert can be your margarita or martini list. It can be easily shareable and removable from the menu. You can get really creative here. It can also be an order form.

The Menu Cover

This should be so appealing that anyone who sees it should want to pick it up. Then they should be two things: hungry and curious. If the cover does not achieve this, start over because no one will want to order from a boring menu.

Size and Shape

There are many considerations when you are calculating the size of the menu. The menu should match the descriptions inside. For example, our catering menu is physically larger than the regular menu. I don’t like menus that become too gimmicky, like a coffee cup shape for a coffee bar. Stay away from gimmicks and focus on quality, readability, and a clean design instead. I would stick to a normal, folding rectangular shape.

Thickness and texture

We use what’s called “soft touch” in the industry. This gives it a velvety feel, where your skin slows down a bit as you touch across the paper.

A soft-touch finish is achieved by applying either a soft touch coating or a laminate film. These are usually applied in liquid form through an inline process, after the printing ink has been applied. The coating then dries, giving it a smooth feel. I highly recommend you try this or other quality processes versus only UV coating.

Redesigning the Menu

Once every year I look at the menus and see where we need improvement. Once every 2-3 years I start making design changes. Once every 5-10 years we make major changes, changing all of the photos and completely overhauling the entire layout. Do this to always keep things fresh.


Remember that in our industry price fluctuations are the norm. There has to be a small section that says something like, “These prices are subject to change without notice.” You have to coordinate this price change effectively, making sure it’s changed online first and then follow that up with the menu board and physical paper menus.


Placement of Plaques

One thing I like to do besides the menus is to place a small plaque beside the POS system. These can be framed upright or glued flat to the surface of the counter. I use high quality acrylic, and this lasts for many years. It’s a last-minute reminder to the customer about certain items we wish to upsell, and they work great.

Using lots of fresh foods, fruits and vegetables, helps to keep the menu buoyant – I don’t know if that’s the right word, but it keeps a balance of freshness and health.Sally Schneider




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