Now Serving: The Art of the Menu (the first of a series)

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Monday, July 21, 2014


EVERYONE loves to eat out and the rise of fast-food and dining franchises is proof of successful business formula. The secret to the rise of lucrative food and dining empires and ventures has never been just about having the capacity to put it up combined with manning, money, equipment and location. It starts with the menu or the recipe.

Going back in history, the creation of what is now known as a menu dates back to the Chinese Song Dynasty. The menu came about for two reasons: first, because of necessity. Merchants during their time meet up with their counterparts in the city and having toiled all day rendered them too tired to work their way through the prolific menus of various regions that by the time dinner came, they were too spent to make an effort. The second reason being, paper in China were in abundance that made it convenient to write out the items on offer, hence, the first menus.

The term “Menu” was French in origin, from the Latin word “minutus”, meaning somewhat small. The French derived this term to mean a list of items, including food.

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Nowadays, after getting seated at the restaurant, the first order of the diner, is to request for the “Menu”. They come all shapes and sizes. It can be seen written from the simple chalkboard to the varied, multiple-paged exclusivity of top restaurants. However, they are presented, their purpose is singular: to assist guests in choosing their perfect meal with ease.

Composing menu, is considered an art. The famous Brillat-Savarin has been known for saying, “To know how to eat and drink with discernment is a science which belongs only to epicures gifted with a refined taste.” To put it succinctly, to draw up a menu properly, so as to tempt epicures to indulge pleasurably in dainty dishes, is an art which belongs only to those gifted with gastronomic discernment, backed up by a practical knowledge of the culinary art.

And since the menu is the defining aspect of your restaurant, it must be planned and executed well. The menu is connected to every aspect of your food service operations. The creation and composition of menus influences purchasing and budgeting, furniture, fixtures and equipment, supplies and raw materials, staffing and training kitchen and food service staff and your restaurant and kitchen design, marketing campaign, promotions and other strategies. But the key is to know your market. The demographics and demand matter, and three major considerations: Location, location, location.

The first step in Menu Composition is choosing the menu type and menu cycle. Determine what kind of menu will you be offering? Ala Carte, Table d’hote or Mixed Menu? Ala carte menu is the most common in both quick-service and full-service restaurants. In an á la carte menu, starters, main courses and desserts are all separately priced and ordered. The disadvantage for going full ala carte is that, it may drive up food and operational costs (for mise en place), and if you are starting up a clean slate with no statistics of popular items, it can be very tricky and unpredictable.

A table d’ hote menu is also known as a prix fixe (fixed price) menu or a set menu. A specific combination of courses – such as a starter, main course and dessert – has already been determined for a fixed price.

What you see is what you get. It comes with several options and choices. It is a good way to avoid high food costs and wasted money by limiting what people can order. However, it does not satisfactorily accommodate people whose tastes or diet requirements are particular or who want to order their meal with substitutions. Mixed menu. Most restaurants choose to offer a mixed menu, where some items are offered a la carte, while other menu items include a package. The typical example is the restaurant that offers salads included with all of their pasta entrees, or one that offers weekly specials or promotions on a full-course fixed price menu.

Once a menu type has been decided, the cycle can now be determined. It can be a static menu that showcases the same menu items every day.

There may be additions to the menu done on the interim in the form of daily, weekly or seasonal specials. Having a static menu, after a few months in operation, will allow you already to predict popularity and demand, allowing flexibility in staffing and purchasing. The drawback is menu fatigue. It is recommended that new menu in the form of daily or weekly inserts of food and beverage specials are highly recommended to complement the static menu.

Cycling menu simply means that the food and beverage offerings can be varied and different for each day of the week, and the start of the cycle goes over again every seven days. Or, you could offer a different menu lean months or peak months, it can be dependent on seasonality or the month of the year. This allows you to take advantage of the freshest local seasonal meats and produce. However, offering a cycle menu has its disadvantages. Every time a new menu is introduced, staff needs to be retrained. Furthermore, orders become unpredictable when the cycle changes, so you have to prepare a detailed, accurate estimation of your new food costs and required inventories.

Many restaurants have found success offering a combination of menu types to better serve diners.

In the next issue, we will be tapping more on what goes on in Menu Planning and Development. Learn how to write / compose a menu! More next week.

Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on July 22, 2014.

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