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Communicating with Customers, Part 2: Menu Makeovers to Increase Sales in 2023

As you close the books on 2022, reworking your item descriptions can be as important to your restaurant's success story as the meals behind the menu. Like the parts of a great recipe, tantalizing menu descriptions can be the secret ingredients that can change your menu from dated to delicious. Using a few key writing and design strategies can help you turn the page and begin the new year fresh, adding up to increased revenue in 2023.

The Language of Menu Descriptions

In general, customers spend just 90 seconds perusing through a menu before making a decision, so it’s important that descriptions are clearly written, easily understood, and require very little explanation. Decreasing the time spent searching during the item-selection process means customers have more time within those golden 90 seconds to find and add additional items to their order.

A menu is like a map that helps customers navigate their way between hunger and satisfaction, and mouthwatering restaurant menu descriptions can be the compass that leads guests to your door time and time again.

Even if the dishes you offer haven’t changed, the language used to describe them can make a delicious difference. Falling under the umbrella topic of menu engineering, optimizing your menu descriptions is one of the simplest ways to generate higher profits from your existing menu.

Importance of menu item descriptions

While some beginners in the food game might think that the menu is just a food list, savvy restaurateurs know that menu descriptions are important sales tools. In fact, a recent study showed that menu descriptions trigger 45% of all buying decisions.

The same study identified certain categories of descriptive words on a menu to have the greatest impact on a client’s decision and the following factors were found to have the most significant influence:

  • Identifying the food as local

  • Proving that the recipe is made with organic ingredients

  • Using words that promote a place of origin

  • Listing ingredients in the local language

  • Using sensory words

  • Including sentimental references

11 Tips for Writing Menu Descriptions that Sell

#1 Trigger the senses

Each item on your menu should have an attractive name and a persuasive description, but the name of the dish should be self-explanatory, allowing customers to understand what the item is at a glance, only needing to read the description if they are curious.

When writing a menu for a restaurant, it’s important to find the right balance, using just the right number of words needed to capture your guest's attention and portray valu.

Words play an even more significant role on a restaurant's online menu, acting as a literal written invitation to explore your offerings and patronize your off-premise operation.

To help with menu descriptions that entice, think about what makes each dish unique, then write down a list of adjectives that describe its smell, taste, texture, or cooking method.


  • Vegetables: earthy, seasonal, crispy, organically grown, farm fresh

  • Sauces: sweet, sour, bitter, tangy, rich, fruity, homemade

  • Chicken: roasted, crispy, tender, succulent, skinless

  • Beef: organic, peppery, lean, aged, stewed, braised, prime, tender, Angus

  • Desserts: decadent, sweet, savory, creamy, seasonal

#2 Use location as a suggestion of quality

Traditionally, adding a distant geographic origin to a dish or an ingredient made it sound more expensive and of better quality. For example, American consumers have long been more obliged to dish out top dollar for wines that came from particular regions in Europe (a sunny vineyard in Tuscany or a fancy french hillside in Bordeaux, France.) Following this logic, the more exotic the source, the more expensive, unique, and intriguing the menu item became.

But the last few years have unleashed a dramatic shift in the way consumers perceive value. These days, environmentally-conscious consumers are becoming increasingly more impressed by a business that sources ingredients locally, and are willing to spend more for food-less-traveled.

In the current consumer conversation, words like local, farm-fresh, and decreased carbon footprint have replaced outdated terms like Euro, imported, and foreign.

Tip: If it's been more than 3 years since you've last updated your menu's terminology, the new year is the perfect time to audit your menu's wording inventory and do some serious menu modification.

#3 Incorporate diets, customs, and trends

We live in a globalized world, with trends shifting as fast as social media dictates. This means you are catering to a wider range of diets, customs, and culinary movements than ever before.

With the vegan, raw-vegan, dairy-free, and gluten-free trends (just to name a few) on the rise, it is becoming increasingly important to have at least one dish in each category to serve clients following these dietary regimens. And this means staying on top of the latest movements, being ready to pivot, and being willing to make adjustments to your menu on a regular basis.

Being sensitive to your client’s individual requirements can lead to word-of-mouth promotions within specialized online communities. When writing descriptions for items that cater to special diets or lifestyles, you can be discreet, using well-known symbols, or obvious, listing each ingredient in the longer description.

#4 Create an intriguing backstory

Together with your chef, try and identify recipes that have a fascinating history. Focus on those passed down from one generation to the next or those with an interesting history.

Think about nostalgic restaurant menu descriptions as a reliable branding tool that can help you sell. It’s important not to overuse this menu writing technique, however, or you could dilute its power, so keep the number of dishes with a backstory to three at most and make sure the narrative works with your overall brand.

#5 Use humor carefully

Humor sells. And clever tongue-in-cheek menu descriptions can land you on social media, leading to thousands of shares. Potentially hashtag-worthy attention can translate into free organic advertising with minimum effort and little to no cost.

Not every restaurant can benefit from humor, however, so it's important that if you use this language that it speaks to your customer base and is consistent with your overall branding and tone of voice. If your restaurant’s image doesn’t lend itself to humorous descriptions for your main menu, using funny names for desserts, cocktails, or children’s menu items can still add a little levity to your menu while keeping your image serious.

If your business is on the casual and fun end of the spectrum, however, you could go full steam ahead and make the entire menu hilarious. But use extreme caution! While it’s ok to make fun of generally accepted topics without insulting anyone, stay away from controversial subject matters like politics, race, sexual identity, creed, and religion. In other words, when in doubt, leave the humor out. What might be funny to one person could be dangerously offensive to others, and could even place your business in legal jeopardy.

#6 Use mouthwatering photos

For online menus, pictures speak louder than words, but for most upscale restaurants, pictures in their brick-and-mortar location menu are kept to a minimum or not used at all. There are several reasons for this. One reason is that it can give off a cheap fast-food vibe. Another reason is that it creates certain expectations in the minds of consumers that can lead to disappointment if the plate doesn’t look like the picture.

Using high-quality images to compliment your online restaurant menu descriptions, however, can help boost sales dramatically. Not only do you not face printing constraints, but people are becoming used to seeing visual cues in the digital world. Studies show that using pictures on online menus actually can increase sales dramatically. When adding images to your online menu, the key is to select only the most mouthwatering photos and make sure that the real thing matches the picture. Some restaurants even include a photo of the packaging and a realistic presentation of what to expect so as not to create a false representation of an item, which can lead to unhappy customers and refund requests.

Images can also serve a secondary purpose— they can help with the SEO indexing of your website. Using original pictures and naming them accordingly can help draw someone searching for a particular dish to your website from an image search.

#7 Keep it simple

Your business serves clients from all walks of life---all ages, educational levels, and nationalities---and they should all be able to read the menu without needing to google the terminology. While using menu adjectives and descriptors can help trigger the senses, the final copy of your restaurant menu descriptions should be readable and easily understood by the average 7-year-old, or second grader. Using similar logic, the highly regarded New York Times, considered the gold standard of news by many well-educated Americans, is written on a fifth-grade vocabulary level.

#8 Stay away from words with negative connotations

Read your descriptions aloud to yourself and others to check for any negative-sounding words. if a word or phrase gives off a less-than-positive connotation, try replacing them with more appetizing synonyms.

When writing a dessert menu description, for example, instead of saying an item is sweet, which could turn off someone counting carbs, replace it with words like glazed, delicious, or irresistible. Or describe a dish that’s cooked in oil with adjectives like crispy or sizzling instead of "fried."

#9 Use numbers wisely

Menu engineering is as much about exclusion as presentation. Another menu design technique is stripping cents from prices (ie, $2 instead of $2.15.) The reason for shaving the pennies is that they underline the painful, fiscal side of dining, whereas round numbers look enticingly friendly and confident. A big fat number 10 conveys faith in the value of a dish, whereas, 9.99 looks like you’re ashamed to charge what the item is worth.

Eliminating currency signs follows the same psychological principle. Research shows that seeing just a number makes clients spend twice as much than when the price includes a currency sign.

#10 Keep the price close to the description

Placing the price as close as possible to the name of the dish or the description helps to avoid price shopping, especially if your items have substantial price differences.

#11 Abide by the 90-second rule

Menu variety is a good thing. After all, people love to have choices. However, too many items on your menu list could have the opposite effect, known as the “choice paradox.” Keep your menu long enough to be interesting, but short enough so guests can decide in less than 90 seconds is a good rule of thumb when writing descriptions.

Take Away

As you prepare to ring in the New Year, resolving to give your restaurant a menu makeover with tantalizing food descriptions can not only provoke customers to crave your food and order more, it can help drive traffic from your website and increase sales for a profitable 2023.


Step-by-Step Menu Engineering Guide for Restaurant Delivery

By Eileen Strauss


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