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Menu writing tips from a hungry copywriter

October 11 2017

Alyssa Smith

Menus are everywhere – the cozy chalkboard at your neighborhood café, the oversized menu at the local burger joint, the minimalist menu at your favorite upscale restaurant. Big or small, simple or complex, beautiful or merely functional, menus are arguably the most important touchpoint between a restaurant’s brand and its customers. However, as pervasive as they are in our lives, we rarely take a moment to appreciate the well-written ones.

Behind every clearly worded, grammatically correct, tastebud-tempting menu is an experienced copywriter actively working to sound different from every other menu out there. It takes a lot of TLC during the menu-writing process to differentiate your baby back ribs from the place that sells ribs down the street. Or that chain a block over.

I’ll be the first one to say it: As a copywriter and self-proclaimed foodie, menu writing is complicated. So, based on our experiences with Regal Cinemas, Halo Burger, and Hudson Café, we’re sharing our top tips for crafting stellar menus – whatever food you’re peddling.

AVOID FILLERS

Dan Jurafsky, a professor of linguistics and computer science at Stanford University and author of “The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu“,conducted a study with researchers from Carnegie Mellon to assess the cause and effect of common menu terminology. They looked at 6,500 menus offering 650,000 dishes at restaurants across all price points in seven major cities.

What they found: a lot of filler words.

Restaurants in the low- to mid-priced range overwhelmingly featured what Jurafsky called “attractive adjectives.” Tempting but subjective words like “delicious,” “crispy,” and “rich.” In his research, Jurafsky found these words to have a surprisingly negative effect on more than the reading experience. For each positive-yet-vague word like “mouthwatering” “tasty,” or “terrific” you see on a dish, the average price of that item is nine percent less. So if you want to increase your value perception, stay away from the fillers!

TALK UP THE “HOW”

If you listen to Charlie Hooper in his book “Selling Eating: Restaurant Marketing Beyond the Word ‘Delicious’” (and you should), there’s a quick way to replace all those accidental filler words: Season your menu with just the facts.

Armed with the right information, simple reporting can lift any dish. Get specific on preparation, ingredients, and other unique features of your dish. “Slow-cooked” is better than “moist.” “Seared on a cast iron grill” better than “mouthwatering.” Remember the old adage “show, don’t tell”? It especially applies to menu writing.

WRITE FOR THE USER

When you’re crafting menu copy, consider where, when, and how your guests will read the menu, and write to suit their in-the-moment needs. It’s always important to consider the form and function of a menu, and base your writing on these constraints to best reach your customer.

For example, if you’re a QSR brand, let the photos do most of the heavy lifting at the drive-thru, and keep the copy short and sweet. (You don’t want words cluttering this fast-action decision point!)

Meanwhile, restaurants in the fast-casual sector should lean toward wayfinding-based menu boards. Utilize ingredient lists to showcase the variety of options, and numbered steps to lead guests through the ordering process.

Ultimately, whether your fast-casual or fine dining, it’s imperative to consider the overall guest experience and how your menu can support it.

WRITE HUNGRY, EDIT FULL

Hemingway once said, “Write drunk, edit sober.” I say, “Write hungry, edit full.” My final advice is to immerse yourself in the dining experience if you want to perfect the menu writing process.

Start with a seat by the kitchen in the restaurant you’re writing for. Get comfy. Let the chef walk you through the cooking process for the dish in detail. Take notes. Then have the chef prepare the dish.

Take a first stab at a few drafts of the item description while they cook. Let the smells from the kitchen entice you. You’ll start to get hungry, embrace it. Once the food comes out, take one huge bite. Take more notes – this time on flavors and taste. Then go on to enjoy your meal.

Finally, only after you have reached peak fullness (and maybe taken a nap), go back to edit. Keep an eye out for filler words, add in specifics about unique ingredients or the cooking process, and consider your dining experience as you write. Clear head, full belly – can’t lose.