Change Is On The Menu: Why And How Restaurants Are Updating Their Offerings

A close-up of a customer placing an online order from a mobile device.

Chef Danel de Betelu had just made a large batch of the classic French stew boeuf bourguignon last March when stay-at-home orders brought the restaurant to a halt. At the time, Maison Danel, a San Francisco-based tea salon and patisserie he owns with his husband David, wasn’t prepared with packaging to easily deliver the stew. Rather than throw out perfectly good food, David proposed a quick pivot.

“We had to find a way to save it,” David recalls. “We bake our own baguettes, so I was like, why don’t we make it a sandwich? And [Danel, who is French,] was like, ‘that’s so American, you put everything on a sandwich.’ We made it, people tried it, and they thought it was really good.” Now, it’s a permanent fixture on the menu and one of their more popular items.

“You have to continue to innovate and try things that work,” David says.

Restaurants had to find efficiencies and adapt quickly to weather an extremely difficult 2020. Looking forward, restaurateurs like the de Betelus are thinking about how they can continue to evolve to future-proof their businesses. As a result, they’re taking a hard look at how they can make menu updates, keeping them digital-friendly, cost-effective, and attractive to customers.

Making tough cuts

Restaurants across the board have had to make big changes to their menus, taking into account what dishes hold up well for delivery and takeout, supply chain issues, reduced staffing, and changing consumer demand. And the upheaval is likely to continue: 92% of restaurateurs say they are likely to make menu changes in 2021, according to research Square commissioned from Wakefield Research as part of the Future of Restaurants report, surveying 500 restaurateurs and 1,000 consumers across the US.

Almost a quarter of restaurants say they are reducing menu options.

“The pandemic has caused many restaurants to consider reducing their menus because they’ve had to cut back their staff so much. They’ve also had to consider food that travels well for off-premise dining and food costs,” explains Rajat Deva, product marketing manager for Square for Restaurants.

READ MORE: 10 Ways to Increase Food Orders Through Your Online Channels

Additionally, says Deva, now that consumers are used to ordering through digital menus on their mobile devices, full-service restaurants in particular are finding that having a litany of options might not actually lead to an increase in sales or a more positive experience and, in fact, can lead to a bit of analysis paralysis.

“In an FSR environment, one thing to consider with the guest experience is that the more items you have, the more time guests are glued to their phones and not doing what they came to do, which is socialize and enjoy the food,” Deva says. “This is one reason why we’re seeing further menu reductions on the FSR side: You want your guests to remember the experience they had, and that gets harder to do the longer they spend on the phone.”

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New cuisine types and cost-effective additions

Not all restaurants are focused just on reducing items. Many are adding items to keep up with changing customer demands. Nearly a quarter of restaurants are adding menu items of a different type of cuisine, while another 23% plan to serve up a completely new menu. Luckily, according to research from Square and Wakefield, 41% of consumers say they are willing to try new menu offerings.

“We have learned, by necessity, to operate within new margins,” says Charlie Marshall, chef and owner of The Marshal in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. “I do believe, however, that as things return to normal, diner preferences will continue to evolve, and so shall we. Delivery was never a huge part of our business pre-COVID, but I think it will remain a large part of our business post-crisis. Pizza was never on the menu pre-COVID, but I think it will remain.”

READ MORE: How to Optimize Your Menu for Takeout and Delivery

Whether completely redoing the menu or experimenting with a few new items, restaurants are including options that are more cost-effective for the kitchen and more affordable for consumers. A full 87% of restaurants say that they have reduced prices on their menus in order to attract more customers, with 37% saying they did so for the entire menu, and 50% saying they did so for select dishes.

“Bottom line and margins are everything right now, so it’s natural to see a focus on menu items that carry lower food costs and higher margins,” Deva says.

Forget the filler

Maison Danel, like 20% of restaurants surveyed, is doubling down on their menu, offering more options in the same cuisine type. But the de Betelus are doing so thoughtfully. They’re leaning into their French niche and offering more specialized French pastries and limited-time items for French holidays, rather than offering more general baked treats like muffins. This, they say, allows them to stand out from the myriad other bakeries around town.

Wally Sadat, owner of the growing The Kebab Shop chain, says his team periodically trims and refreshes their menu, cutting out items that don’t sell well or that don’t “wow” the crowd, and considers additions based on customer needs.

“We cleaned out our menu. Then we thought about what people actually want right now. On top of that, how can we make it easier on our operational team, so they’re not under so much pressure? If the product is something that is convenient for your team to make, then the execution of that product will be better.”

Now, he says, being intentional with your menu is critical for survival.

“In order to really future-proof your concept, you literally should start with your menu,” he advises. “Your menu should be something that you believe in. You shouldn’t have any filler on your menu.”