A well-designed menu is more than just a price list. It is a sales tool — perhaps the most important sales tool in the cafe. It is a projection of the company’s brand and values. And it is an integral part of the customer experience.

An appealing menu, with the right placement, can entice new customers through the door. The right layout can direct customers to your most profitable drinks, or encourage them to order extra items that they didn’t know they wanted. Helping the customer decide what they want before they reach the till, or before your server reaches the table, can save your staff a lot of time.

The menu is also an important component of a coffee shop’s brand. What you choose to include, and how you choose to present it, speaks volumes about the kind of experience you are trying to create for your customers. The menu for a relaxed, homely cafe will look very different to the menu for a specialized brew bar with a library of rare single origin beans.

At its best, the menu can determine the way customers interact with your cafe. A high-volume cafe focused on takeaway service might use the menu to encourage customers to choose quickly, grab their coffee, and move on. In a cafe-roastery, on the other hand, the menu might be designed to encourage customers to linger and explore the full list of coffees on offer, and tempt them into trying something new.

Know your audience

With all these different possibilities in mind, the first step in designing an effective menu is to get to know your customers’ expectations. Coffee is mildly addictive, so coffee drinkers tend to be people of habit.

More often than not, a customer will know what they want to order before they walk in the door, even if they’ve never been to your cafe before. If you don’t list ‘cappuccino’ on your menu, you can be fairly certain that people will still try to order it!

If you can work out what your customers already know, or assume, about what you have to offer, then you can focus the menu on giving them the information they actually need — or on steering their choices towards what you want to offer.

One great example of this is the menu at 3FE in Dublin, Ireland — the flagship cafe for a large specialty coffee roaster. Instead of listing all the different kinds of coffee drink available, the menu consists of just three lines — each one listing a coffee from a different origin. They assume that their customers already know if they want an espresso, a cappuccino, or a filter coffee — so instead, they ask the customer to decide which single origin bean they want the coffee to be made with. This innovative approach pushes customers to engage with the different coffees that 3FE roasts, every time they order a coffee.

On the other hand, some customers might be intimidated by this approach. If your customers are new to specialty coffee, then a different menu design could reassure and guide them, perhaps by including simple descriptions of each drink so they know exactly what to expect.

Knowing what drinks your customers are most likely to order should also guide the design of the menu. If 90% of your customers are going to order lattes with flavor syrups, then there’s little point dedicating lots of space on the menu to a list of single origin hand-brewed filter coffees.

Decide what to include

Once you understand your customers, you can decide what to include on the menu — and just as importantly, what to leave out. The menu should meet the needs of the kind of customer you want to attract, but it’s not wise to try and please everyone.

Too many options on a menu can lead to what’s called ‘the paradox of choice’. If a customer has too many options to choose from, they tend to be less satisfied with their choice than if they choose from a more limited range.

Instead, focus on the items that fit your company’s brand and ethos. An extreme example of this is the menu at Törnqvist in Hamburg, Germany. This cafe, sadly now closed, was focused on providing an exclusive experience to an audience well-versed in specialty coffee.
Accordingly, the menu listed just three items: Flat White, Handbrew, or Shot. This uncompromising approach no doubt alienated some customers, but won the cafe many dedicated followers.

While deciding what to offer, don’t overlook ‘extras’ such as plant-based milk, extra espresso shots, ‘babyccinos’, and so on. Decide which customisations you will allow, and which don’t fit with your ethos. Make sure that you decide on an appropriate price for each extra, even if you don’t end up including them on your written menus.

Multiple menus

It’s very common for a cafe to feature more than one kind of menu. For example, you might have a display board above the baristas’ heads, menu cards on the tables, and you might also display the menu on your website. Each of these menus has a different purpose, so the design and content of each should reflect that.

For example, the display board might be geared towards takeaway customers. This menu needs to have large, clear writing, so probably can’t include every item the shop offers. Instead, it should feature the most commonly ordered drinks or grab and go items. The intention here is to make it as easy as possible for the customer to make a quick decision and be on their way.

In the same cafe, a different printed menu might be designed for table service. Customers ordering at the table can take the time to read through a full menu, so this is the place to feature the rare teas or complex signature drinks that might encourage your customers to spend more.

Give special consideration to how to handle items on the menu that change frequently, for example the daily special, or the current single origin filter coffee. You may not want to reprint the entire menu each time these change. The solution to this can be as simple as writing it on a blackboard each day, but it’s worth considering other options. A printed menu insert, for example, would allow space for more complex descriptions and maintain a sophisticated look. On the other hand, you might prefer to encourage interaction with the baristas, by directing customers to ask about the coffees on offer rather than having all the information written down.

Hire a designer

Once you know exactly what you want to include, it’s time to create the layout and visual design for your menus. The design should follow the content, not the other way around.

Given how important the menus can be to the success of your cafe, it’s well worth working with a professional designer to make them as eye-catching as possible and to ensure that they fit your brand.

When working with an external designer, include all the information from the previous steps in the brief. Make sure the designer is clear on what the purpose of each menu is and what your customers’ expectations are, as well as which items need to be included.

The menu design should also enhance the sales of your most profitable items. Discuss with the designer which products you want to particularly promote, and how to use the layout to achieve that. The most prominent locations on the menu are the so-called ‘golden triangle’ — the top-left and top-right corners, and the very center. In a list of items, the first and last tend to be the most commonly ordered. Finally, items you really want to upsell can be highlighted with selective use of color, or by using frames or other design elements to draw the eye.

Ask the designer to create the menu template in a form that you and your team can easily edit. If you need to tweak pricing or remove an unprofitable item, it’s faster, and cheaper, if you are able to do it yourself.

If you can’t justify the expense of a professional designer, then a simple menu template, printed on good quality paper, can do the job very well. In this situation, though, keep the layout as simple as possible. Leave the more complex designs to the professionals.

Once the menu is designed, the final step is to monitor how well it works. Are highlighted items selling well? Are customers constantly asking baristas the same questions? Use this feedback to determine what information might be missing or unclear on your menu, or what techniques for promoting items work for your customers. By paying attention to what your customers need from your menus, and tweaking the design to meet those needs, the menu can be a powerful tool for increasing your sales.

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