How to Build a Menu that Actually Works

Caterers should always strive to provide a robust menu with clearly articulated services that continuously meet the ever-changing requests of their customers. This gives your sales team something to hold onto and work with—and keeps your team miles ahead of competitors.

There is a huge difference between a good menu and one that can use a little more thought and structure. At the very least, an adequate menu contains a solid framework that can easily be built upon.

A good catering menu offers the following:

• Services that are on-trend and segmented by appropriate markets

• Detailed sales and operational information

• Enough substance for packaged or a la carte pricing

• A format that’s adaptable for custom menu writing

The menu process is a collaborative effort. Every department from sales to kitchen should work together to ensure that all important items are incorporated.

When structuring your menu, make sure you include these key elements:

• Separation by day parts or service styles

• A defined number of items per section—based on type or protein

• Standardized formatting for both guest and operational use

• Multiple versions of the same dish based on portion size or sales unit

• Regular review and editing

Menu items are more than descriptions. They may look great on a proposal yet still fail to provide information to the operations team. Any menu item, whether it’s a graphic design or stored in a default menu, must be complete if it’s to be considered for inclusion in a published menu. A complete menu contains:

• Minimum sales price per unit – The minimum sales price that meets your company’s desired margins.

• Variable sales units – Individual, by the dozen or by the pan. This allows the same item to be sold in different day parts with different sales objectives.

• Cost per sales unit – The cost of each item. The culinary team should understand cost per unit before the item can be included in the menu.

• Portion size by sales unit – The same item with a different day part may require various sizing. This information should be available to the sales team to ensure profitability.

• Itemized prep or production items – Garnishes, sauces or accompaniments not listed in the description.

• Preferred serviceware and required items – Appropriate service items and preferred display pieces and disposables. These elements should be identified prior to publishing the menu. This will eliminate any confusion in the warehouse and between operational staff.

Managing all this information on your menu is essential. When the right systems aren’t in place and active, processes fail.

This is where event management software or recipe management systems come in handy. They are great tools to create and store all your information. Without good data management, you have no control or understanding when an information point goes awry. Having highly detailed menu items with comprehensive and consistent department information is your only path to profitability.

If you are struggling to manage your menu’s information, reach out! We’d love to put you in touch with peers in the catering industry who can help.

John Reed

Owner, Custom Culinary Solutions, Chicago, IL

John Reed is a professional chef with over 30 years’ experience. He is the owner of Customized Culinary Solutions, a culinary consulting firm located in the Chicago Northshore area. He works with restaurant, catering, and foodservice companies to provide the highest quality food possible. His contributions include menu and recipe development, emerging concept development, and transition management for companies introducing culinary and production software programs. His company specializes as an on-demand culinary department supporting out-sourced culinary project management.

An active member of the ACF, he has earned certifications as a Certified Executive Chef, Certified Culinary Administrator, and American Academy of...