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Americans are tired of long restaurant menus

Long menus are so last decade. (Pat Wellenbach/AP Photo)

For years, long, winding menus were the fad. The more options a restaurant offered, the less likely that diners would want to go elsewhere, the thinking went. And the thinking was widespread: Everywhere from Ruby Tuesday to the Olive Garden and McDonald's obliged, channeling their inner Cheesecake Factory with menus that spanned several continents and cuisines, challenging even the sturdiest attention spans.

But Americans are finally growing tired of all the clunky, and often confusing, food lists. And restaurants seem to be taking note.

The International House of Pancakes (IHOP), for its part, has shaved some 30 items off its menu over the past few years; Tony Roma's has cut its menu items by more than a third — from 92 items to 60 — since 2011; Olive Garden has been criticized by investment firm Starboard Value, which recommended — among many, many other things — trimming its number of offerings; and McDonald's has openly admitted that its menu has simply grown too long.

"We overcomplicated the restaurants and didn't give restaurants an opportunity to breathe," Tim Fenton, McDonald's chief operating officer, said in an earnings call earlier this year. "We need to do fewer products with better execution."

Burger King has pivoted in a similar direction. The company has been implementing what it calls a "fewer, more impactful" launch strategy for a little over a year now, which is essentially a commitment to bringing fewer but better-executed menu items to market each year.

These are but a few of the many eateries now opting to downsize their menus. Industry-wide, the average menu size has fallen to fewer than 93 items this year in the United States, after reaching a peak of nearly 100 items per menu in 2008, according to data collected by Datassential Menu Trends. The average restaurant menu is shorter today than it has been in at least eight years.

The trend is clearest among newly opened establishments, where menus are nearly 40 items shorter on average.

In all, the country's 500 largest restaurant chains have cut more than seven percent of food items offered this year, per estimates by food industry research firm Technomic. "Across all mealparts, casual-dining chains are reducing menus," Technomic said in a report from June.

Slimming down menus can be a fairly straightforward way for restaurants to cut costs. By offering fewer items, eateries can more easily standardize food quality, avoid the waste from estimating demand for longer lists of foods and, presumably, boost their profit margins — either by charging more or spending less.

"There are a lot of cost issues inherent in long menus," said Maeve Webster, a senior director at Datassential. "Right now, for example, protein prices have been more volatile than at almost any other time. Waste can be costly."

But the biggest impetus for all the menu shrinking going on is likely tied to a change in the country's food culture: Americans are becoming a bit more refined in their tastes.

"Historically, the size of menus grew significantly because there wasn't the food culture there is today," said Webster. "People weren't nearly as focused on the food, or willing to go out of their way to eat specific foods."

For that reason, as well as the fact that there were fewer restaurants then, there used to be a greater incentive for restaurants to serve as many food options as possible. That way, a customer could would choose a particular restaurant because it was near or convenient, rather than for a specific food craving (which probably wasn't all that outlandish anyway). But now, given the increasing demand for quality over quantity, a growing appetite for exotic foods and a willingness to seek out specialized cuisines, Americans are more likely to judge a restaurant if its offerings aren't specific enough.

"The rise of food culture, where consumers are both interested and willing to go to a restaurant that has the best Banh Mi sandwich, or the best burger, or the best trendy item of the moment, means that operators can now create much more focused menus," said Webster. "It also means that the larger the menu, the more consumers might worry all those things aren't going to be all that good."

There's good reason to believe the pairing down of restaurant literature might have only just begun. The comparatively sparse menus in newly opened restaurants is a testament to the industry's bet on the movement's staying power. As is the shuffle to shorten menus among some of the country's largest food chains. And a number of trends, including the rise of food trucks, pop-up restaurants, single-item restaurants, chef's menus and tasting menus, are indicators of the same: a sustained movement toward, and in support of, both simplicity and focus.

"I believe this trend will continue, and continue for quite a while," Webster said. "If it reverses, I don't believe that will happen anytime in the near future."