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Less is more on restaurant menus

August 25, 2014

The "tyranny of choice" hypothesis in retail — offering too many product choices, thus confusing consumers and lowering sales — is widely accepted if infrequently addressed in stores. A similar concept appears somewhat analogous in foodservice where restaurant operators are finding page after page of menu options are not adding up to more sales for their establishments. Today, many restaurant chains are taking a less is more approach to their menu choices.

According to the foodservice research and consulting firm, Technomic, restaurants are shrinking menu options across all meal parts. Too many choices make it hard for staff to keep up with orders and, in turn, cause customer unhappiness.

The number of menu items of the top 500 restaurant chains has dropped just over seven percent this year, according to Technomic.

"We can no longer be everything to everybody all the time," Brad Smith, COO of Tony Roma's, a steak and ribs chain, told USA Today. "I don't think customers are out there counting the number of items. It's about producing better quality products."

According to the Nation's Restaurant News-MillerPulse report, restaurant chain sales in July increased three percent. Traffic was just slightly above flat.

Discussion Questions:

Do you agree that less is often more when it comes to the number of menu selections at restaurants? What do you see as the biggest benefit for restaurants reducing the number of items on their menus?

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Instant Poll:

Do you agree or disagree that less is often more when determining the number of menu selections at restaurants?


I do agree. With the exception of diners, who appear to fare well with encyclopedia-like menus, the average restaurant can benefit from greater focus and concentration of offerings.

The benefits are several fold: reduced inventory (particularly slow-moving items), fresher food, higher turns, knowledgeable staff, and fewer items to be able to comment on.

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Richard J. George, Ph.D., Professor of Food Marketing, Haub School of Business, Saint Joseph's University

Smart restauranteurs stood up and took notice of Chipotle and that the concept of limited ingredients, multiple options makes it easy for consumers. More importantly, it helps manage supply/distribution.

Retailers would do well to curate their selections as well. Too much choice trips the "idiot switch" and makes shopping or dining feel like work.

No one wants more work, especially if they are going to be paying money, not receiving it.

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Bob Phibbs, President/CEO, The Retail Doctor

Less is more when it comes to the number of menu selections at restaurants. Less means that a restaurant can focus on its specialties. Less means that food can be prepared and delivered faster. And less should mean higher quality. Finally, having fewer items on the menu could mean that restaurants will be able to buy in larger quantities, thereby reducing food costs.

For diners, less could mean an easier decision about where to go for a meal and what to have when they get there.

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Max Goldberg, President, Max Goldberg & Associates

I do agree that less can be more. It can be more cost efficient for the restaurants. It can be more convenient for the customer. And for the customer it can also mean more quality and more freshness. Finally, for the restaurant it can mean more opportunity to direct a spotlight on its point of differentiation from other restaurants.

Menu choices in diners, on the other hand, are an example of more is more. But that's what their customers expect.

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Joan Treistman, President, The Treistman Group LLC

You go to a restaurant to relax a bit while eating, not to increase your workload beforehand. The benefit from reducing the number of items on the menu offers freedom from the vengeance of too great a variety.

Gene Hoffman, President/CEO, Corporate Strategies International

I've never understood how those roadside Greek diners in New Jersey could have 12-page menus and still turn out absolutely delicious food in a timely way.

One way for chains to add variety to the menu is to add limited-time-only specials, then add them to the regular menu if they're blockbuster hits. Restaurant success is less about a huge selection and more about consistent quality.

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Cathy Hotka, Principal, Cathy Hotka & Associates

The more that the food providers can simplify the menus the better. Simple creates more diner confidence and shorter lines.

When some people go out to eat they do not want to think that much. So make it easy, and maybe even offer a special choice as a pre-picked meal for each day. Like "Friday Burger Bash Dinner," which would come with X, Y and Z.

Totally agree with Richard on diners. The menu is what makes diners more fun. Thick menus with great dish names.

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Tom Redd, Global Vice President, Strategic Communications, SAP Global Retail Business Unit

First off, props to Brad Smith of Tony Roma's! He's got it right. For some reason many businesses can't accept the idea that not everyone should be their customer. We want everyone to love us and everyone to buy from us. That is almost as futile a strategy as trying win the lowest price battle.

I simply do not trust restaurants with page after page of menu options. Where does all that stuff come from? Does it take long to thaw? The only exception is Chinese restaurants because they have only seven ingredients anyway, just mixed in different combinations.

A drugstore chain I consulted for in Canada years ago bragged that they had over 300 perfume options. Finally they realized that only 20 percent of them were of interest to consumers and some of the bottles had been on the shelf for over a decade.

Keep it simple and keep it good. The sharper the point on your arrow the more likely to penetrate the target.

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Ian Percy, President, The Ian Percy Corporation

Just like many of the mainstream retailers are finding out, bigger isn't always better. While sometimes it is fun to go to one of those all-you-can eat buffets or diners where you can get anything the heart (or stomach) desires, most times when I go to a restaurant I usually pick the same two or three items over and over. It's why I go to that restaurant. If I want something different, I'll go to the restaurant that specializes in what I want.

Have you ever watched the Food Network Show "Restaurant: Impossible"? Chef Robert Irvine has worked with many failing restaurants to turn their businesses around. He helps them to simplify their menus so that they can define who they are. This also reduces the complexity in the kitchen, so they serve high quality food in a timely fashion and manage the costs of ingredients and keep the food fresh.

I think the reduction of the number of selections is a win/win for both the customer and the restauranteur.

Alan Lipson, Retail Industry Marketing Manager, SAS Institute Inc.

A few really good dishes will be better for both customers and the business.

Simon Jones, Business Development Director, Impulse Logic Limited

Definitely. Restaurants should focus on whatever differentiates them and makes them a destination in terms of key signature items. The long menu with dozens and dozens of choices does really make you question the freshness of the items being prepared.

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Brian Numainville, Principal, The Retail Feedback Group

I agree with less is more. However, the items that are left on the menu could be tweaked to create additional choices, by offering low carb versions of the same menu item without adding a whole lot more inventory. This to me is something not being done by many restaurants, as well as adding gluten free alternatives to a certain menu board.

If I owned a restaurant, it would be standard policy to make all of my consumers aware, through in-store, and social media, how our chefs can create a gluten free or low carb version of certain items that would create additional revenue, and make the many millions of consumers happy at the same time.

I do this in my deli, where as a certain salad, entree, or dessert is offered to our customers if they have a special need. And you know what? It can taste just as delicious, by following a few twists of the recipes you make.

This is not a fad, but a lifestyle for many people, and it needs to be addressed better than it currently is, and the restaurants that do this right will definitely be the winners.

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Tony Orlando, Owner, Tony O's Supermarket & Catering

The key is picking a product that is ubiquitous and well loved, like burgers, tacos, coffee, donuts, beer, etc. There's no "go" if that isn't a factor. (FWIW; this is why I believe there will one day be a "McDonald's of Marijuana"—really!)

The focus on that product then is what subsequently makes it so great and allows you to test product extension limits. Like Shake Shack, In-N-Out, Starbucks, Chipotle, Dunkin' Donuts, The Beer Store, etc., all do quite well.

If you miss on the product side, however, like with cupcakes recently, you're not going to be opening a lot of stores.

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Lee Peterson, EVP Brand, Strategy & Design, WD Partners

I agree with the others who have said yes, except for diners. The fewer choices on a restaurant menu should equate to better taste and quality. I, like the others, say the exception are the diners who have an encyclopedic menu and still produce a good quality product.

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Ed Rosenbaum, CEO, The Customer Service Rainmaker, Rainmaker Solutions

My concerns here are whether this emerging trend for fast casual restaurants to simplify their menus and operations will be sustainable and make it worthwhile for other types of restaurants or chains to invest in streamlining menu items and potentially risk losing customers who like the discontinued items.

The USA Today article mentioned that this shift is Millennial driven, as they prefer "food quality, flavor, local sourcing and the ability to customize meals." I'd also add good value. Chipotle is a great example. My go-to is Shake Shack for all the reasons noted.

I'd agree that less is often more for fast casual restaurants. Let's see how others adapt over the long-term.

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Karen S. Herman, Founder/Retail Design Strategist, Gustie Creative LLC

The "tyranny of choice" may be widely accepted, but it is far from proven by any data. The oft-cited "jam experiment" is completely overblown. Often, we find that removing choices in actual real-world retail tests simply removes sales.

That said, I place more importance on the operational and brand consistency sides of menu rationalization. It IS harder to make more stuff, especially dishes that require unique ingredients. And there IS sometimes, for some brands and not always, a brand price to be paid by deviating more from the core concept.

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Jonathan Marek, Senior Vice President, Applied Predictive Technologies

While the tyranny of choice may not hold fast in every category—to wit (and perhaps ironically) jellies/jams, which have brand loyalty considerations—it certainly does seem to matter in "shop" categories, that is those in which the shopper isn't highly educated and must compare items.

That said, we must consider (and control for) non-quantity related variables like packaging and overall shoppability. Well-considered graphics and structure alone can take, for example, a single block of 20 items to 4 blocks of 5 items, thereby eliminating much of the walk-away factor. I've seen this play out in the real world in my own commodity categories.

Unfortunately, as the article suggests, getting retailers on board with this is often an uphill battle. Though we learn more about solid merchandising every day (both from experience and academia), big boxes seem to be leaning more toward "consistent" product sets (particularly in the continuing move to private label). Unfortunately, these are extremely unshoppable, to the point where I've often had trouble navigating my own sets.

Indeed, one customer who's pushed for private label consistency has seen significant drops in comp POS ... and in response has made the next round of packaging even less shoppable, despite warnings and data to the contrary. Comps will drop again next year, and perhaps then they'll listen. But I'll bet not.

One of these days, a big box will realize that "consistency" taken to the extreme can make the shopper's task more difficult. By applying a bit of theory and a lot of on-shelf experimentation, optimized grax/strux could well improve sellthrough by minimizing walkaways.


Only in specialty restaurants. In-N-Out has been offering a limited hamburger and drink menu for 66 years and is thriving.

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Carlos Arámbula, Strategist, One Ninth & Co-founder of MarcasUSA, One Ninth, MarcasUSA LLC

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