- Jessica Dunker is president and CEO of the Iowa Restaurant Association.
As I write this, I am lamenting the end of the premium grilled chicken wrap at McDonald's.
I liked it, and now it’s gone.
It was introduced by the quick-service giant as part of a strategy to compete with the various sub sandwich chains and to attract millennials who were “demanding healthier, fresher” menu items.
As the proud parent of three millennials, who spent a decade pushing apple slices in place of fries, I am pleased to know that this generation is demanding such things. But are they really? Sales numbers would say differently. People like what they like, and regardless of generation, restaurants rarely go wrong by offering fries in any form (shoestring, cottage, waffle, etc.).
Healthy stuff with your burger? Not so much.
But this isn’t an indictment of closet fry-eaters. Rather, it’s a recognition that restaurants, like all businesses, have to evolve — and that includes changing their menus — and dumping sales losers.
This methodical evaluation of a menu can be easier for chains than for locally owned restaurants. You’re not likely to find any sentimental value attached to “mom’s favorite flan” recipe in a national chain. Independent restaurateurs are much more likely to resist dumping an item on the off chance it is one of their regular patrons' (or their own) favorites. That’s why you may notice a local restaurant’s menu grow and grow, and grow some more.
But that’s rarely a good business decision. Restaurants, particularly those locally owned places, cannot be everything to everyone. And if the menu is too long, quality — of food and service — can suffer.
Thankfully for those owners who have trouble letting go, the move toward shorter restaurant menus is actually considered “trendy” these days, and that can make unloading a few rarely ordered menu items more palatable.
What’s more, research shows that today’s busy diner doesn’t want to be met with hundreds of options when eating out. They generally prefer easier-to-read menu formats — less is actually more.
Take a look at the relatively sparse menus from some of the Golden Circle’s newest restaurants, add to that the offerings from your favorite food truck, pop-up restaurant or single-item food venue, and you quickly realize that it isn’t a lack of ideas keeping these menus small. Rather, it’s a movement toward focused, specific menu items.
National brands like Chipotle figured this trend out early. In an effort to capture the dollars of diners who want to customize meals but not wade through large, confusing menus, Chipotle offers four main items. Customers then walk through and choose from 20-plus optional ingredients. It’s a short — but very customizable — menu.
Other chains (and independents) are following suit. A recent Washington Post article noted that the country’s 500 largest restaurant chains have cut more than 7 percent of their menu items this year. Small independent restaurants would be well served to follow suit.
In the past, restaurants tried to differentiate themselves with the breadth of their menu offerings. Today sharp owners recognize that too many choices make it hard for diners to choose anything at all. Diners don’t judge a restaurant on how many items it offers, but rather on how well it executes specific offerings.
So if you notice your favorite restaurant has shortened its menu, you can bet that the items that remain are likely winners and will consistently taste great. You win, and so does the operation. Flat out, that’s just good business.