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Objects on Your Plate May Be Smaller Than They Appear

Video from the Atlantic City Convention Center, on April 3rd, where food vendors were pitching their products to restaurant owners. The theme:value, value, value. The price of everything a chef needs is soaring, so there was a lot of talk about to how scale back portion sizes, as subtly as possible. Video by David Segal/The Washington Post

Move enough entrees, and even pennies start to matter. Two months ago, the Lobster House in Cape May, N.J., changed the recipe for a flounder dish, getting rid of a vodka brandy sauce that cost 70 cents per serving in favor of an assortment of vegetables with garlic seasoning, which cost about a third as much.

"We're the 14th-largest-grossing restaurant in the country," says John Thompson, a Lobster House purchasing agent. "Changes like that add up."

Thompson is milling around the Atlantic City Convention Center, where two weeks ago hundreds of food vendors showed off their products to several thousand restaurateurs. A walking New Orleans jazz band tried to lighten the mood with music, but everyone on the buy side looked miserable.

Only one guy in the room said he was busier than ever: Chris Mentzer, a menu re-engineering and recipe development specialist with US Foodservice, the company that put together the event. He does house calls for restaurants in distress, and he's currently booked three months in advance.

"I've been so busy in the last year," he says, "we hired two extra people."

Mentzer and his colleagues show up with a scale and a laptop and weigh all the ingredients for every item on the menu. Then they start crunching numbers. If the food cost for any offering -- the raw materials, before the price of labor and other overhead is added on -- is more than 32 percent of the price on the menu, there's a problem.

Fortunately, Mentzer has a lot of solutions.

"The first thing I tell them is to round up every price that ends with 95 cents to 99 cents. You've got an item $10.95, raise it to $10.99. If it's $7.75, make it $7.79. All the chains have done it -- Applebee's, Chili's, all of them. It's just four cents and your customers won't notice, but that could easily mean $5,000 to $15,000 a year for the restaurant."

There's a science to where on the menu you display that price, too, he says. Take a typical two-column menu: The description of the food is on the left, and the price is an inch or two from the description, on the right. Bad idea, says Mentzer. Get rid of the second column, he recommends, and put the price at the end of the sentence that describes the dish.

"You want people to read the price after they've read the description," he explains, "not before."

Now that you've nestled together price and description, you've got to think about where on the menu to locate each dish. Mentzer has studies that track where the eye travels when it reads a menu, and part of his presentation to clients is a menu divided into sections: the starlets (top right, the place for items that net the most money), the plow horses (top left, ideal for dishes that are higher than average in popularity and lower than average contributors to the bottom line), the dogs (bottom left, lower than average popularity, lower than average profits) and so on.

"The eye goes first to the starlets and it doesn't like to spend a lot of time with the dogs," he says. "I told a guy recently to move his pastas -- which are really high-margin -- from the dogs to the all-stars, and there was a 30 percent jump in sales."

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