Menu Development

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(Photo: courtesy of Toby’s Estate.)

In many ways, the café menu is the glue that holds an operation together. While the actual contents of the menu play a critical role in informing customers, so does the presentation of your menu and how it’s positioned in your shop. A café menu serves as a driver of customer interaction, informs pricing and offerings, defines the style of a business, and establishes boundaries of what can be expected in a particular service environment. It determines what supplies you order, how you source ingredients, and how you train staff.

Without a strong sense of who you are as a business, it’s difficult to shape a menu.

Think about times when you peeked at a menu hanging in a window or browsed through online postings before choosing a new restaurant. One glance can give you a sense of the price range, formality of the dining environment, type of food or drink served, and even personality of the business.

Taking the time to consider your concept, the surrounding neighborhood, and your business goals helps design an informative coffee and tea menu that guides meaningful interactions with your customers—and keeps them coming back.

A Look in the Mirror

The first step in creating a menu is determining what type of business you’re running. “The concept is the primary driver of menu offerings,” says Scott Siers, a senior vice president at Farmer Brothers, a national coffee roaster and distributor. “Who do you want to be? Is coffee primary?”

A rush-hour drive-thru coffee stand focused on milk-based beverages and smoothies will have a very different approach to menu curation than an urban café focused on highlighting a selection of single-origin coffees roasted in-house. Think about who your business serves, how you want to engage your customers with your menu items—whether it be through education about origin or a focus on local ingredients—and the speed at which you envision guests moving through the space. A pour-over bar takes time, but allows quality interaction with the barista manning the station. Batch-brew is conducive to a commuter crowd who want good coffee fast.

At Perc Coffee, a roastery in Savannah, Georgia, owner Philip Brown says the first thing they do when helping someone develop a menu is get to know who they are. “I need to see coffee through their eyes,” Brown says.

While it’s tempting to build a menu that draws from the ideas of other cafés, designing a menu around your unique identity sets you up for success in the future. Taking time to thoroughly test recipes and presentation leads to decisions based on what you think is the best expression of your coffee and tea, not just a reflection of café menus around you. “You need to totally believe in it and totally have thought of every angle,” Brown says. He explains that taking the time to carefully consider each aspect of the menu—from cup sizes, to coffee and milk sourcing, to drink names—allows you to speak confidently with customers about your offerings and answer questions without getting defensive.

The Consistency Factor

When you take great pains to build a menu from scratch, make sure your staff is on board. Not only do baristas need to be able to make the drinks on your menu, they also need to understand why each is included in order to engage with customers and provide education. This might also mean having a set of ground rules for handling off-menu requests.

Siers recommends establishing how much latitude and creativity you’re willing to have. “All of these things have their positives and negatives,” he says. “Too many options complicates the menu, complicates training for the staff, creates inconsistency, and ultimately dissatisfies customers.”

Brown recommends sticking to what’s on the menu, wary of the tendency of cafés to operate like build-your-own sandwich shops, adding shots and syrups, swapping milks, and ultimately delivering drinks that have yet to be tested. “If we’re going to have a sweet drink, let’s create a sweet drink,” he says. “A drink that’s been created, that has ingredients, that’s been taste-tested, that we are very confident tastes awesome.”

With regular training, your baristas will know how to guide customers to a drink they’ll enjoy, even if it wasn’t what they originally had in mind. “It all comes back to the customer,” Brown says. “If we’ve curated and thought about all of these ideas, it’s all an effort to give good customer service, to present the very best product we can to them.”

Design and Layout

When the staff is appropriately educated on your drinks, the physical menu can be more streamlined. Menus get confusing when too many options are added to the grid. “It’s not a damn Excel spreadsheet,” Brown says. He advocates simpler menu layouts that offer drinks at one price and size, with options for modifications listed at the bottom, “something to simplify the visual experience,” he says.

Siers describes menu layout like a newspaper, read from the top left to the bottom right. “It’s the upper left that I’m going to look to first. I’ve got my core drinks up there. And then I come down and on the bottom: add-ins, syrups, milk,” he says. “It’s that building concept. Simplification with your add-ins, so your menu board is easy to read, easy to understand, and easy to build.” He recommends limiting drink sizes to two options, bringing it back to consistency and the ability for staff to deliver better drinks.

Designing your menu is also an opportunity to revisit your brand. How does the layout of your menu fit into the design of your café? There are lots of ways to incorporate your menu into your space and weave company branding into the design (as evidenced by the cafés in this story). Many cafés choose to work with an artist or graphic designer to help create the vision, treating the menu as a design element of the café.

Going Rogue

Even the best-designed menus tend to get ignored by customers who frequent a café. A way to combat that? Have a specialty menu in addition to your core offerings. “You are going to have some people who want to discover,” says Siers. He recommends rotating new drinks on a monthly basis or on a regular cadence that customers can look forward to.

Levi Anderson, a beverage product specialist with the Kerry Group, encourages cafés to consider a secret or alternative menu. He suggests even using a QR code for customers to access a secondary menu with drink specials and in-depth info on sourcing. “It allows for lots more information to be included on the menu, to be looped into the bigger story,” Anderson says.

Specialty menus are best placed on the counter or in a spot easily visible to customers queuing to order. Offering new beverages for a limited time serves as a trial period for any beverage you might consider adding to the permanent offerings, without taking up valuable real estate on the main board.

To take a closer look at menu development, we’ll examine five cafés across the country whose menus are a seamless element of their brand, training, and customer engagement. Over the course of the series, we’ll glean insights from Tea Bar, The Wormhole Coffee, Revolution Roasters, Toby’s Estate, and Coava Coffee.

First up: Tea Bar in Portland, Oregon.

Ellie Bradley is Fresh Cup‘s associate editor.