Designing Menus for Millennials

Wendy Dimitri knows how to develop and design menus. 

Wendy DimitriWendy DimitriLately, her work has centered on Millennials, and she works with both independent restaurants and emerging chains to cater to this group of food-focused diners who grew up with the Food Network and chefs on TV. We caught up with the principal of The CRB Group, a full-service restaurant consultancy in Charlotte, N.C., for her take — in her own words — on the top trends in menu design.

Small Plates: Millennials are the snack-food generation. They still want entrées, but they might order a collection of appetizers and call it dinner. As a result, we've switched to menus with "lighter fare" sections and a lot of small plates and side options. Originally, you would see a side section that might include sides, and they would be listed as smaller versions of main dishes. Now you see an expanded "sides" section with things like falafel balls or chicken skewers that could be part of a larger dish or that someone might make into a meal.

Customization: Younger diners like the pick-two option, especially at lunch. This translates into a little less than double the price of two items they could order individually and put together as a meal. Instead, they might want a falafel ball and side salad option. This is huge for the Millennial generation because they are looking for more customization of menu items versus full meals.

Special Diets: Menus of the future need to not only offer diners the ability to customize, they must cater to those with allergies and other special diet needs like vegan, vegetarian and gluten free. Then there are people who are following the Paleo diet, which is not allergy based, but more of a choice to avoid gluten for health and weight-loss reasons. Sometimes we position emblems or graphics next to these menu items to quickly call them out, which is especially great for short attention spans.

Wording: Everyone has been taught that fried food is bad — so instead of seeing that word on a menu you might see something described as "crisp" or "pan-seared." We're staying away from indicators that might suggest something is unhealthy (other than the popular duck fat fries and bacon).

Food Origins: Millennials are a well-educated generation when it comes to food, and they love authenticity. They also want to know where their food comes from. The more a menu calls out a farm or origin, the better. "Local," "wild-caught," "organic" and "fresh" are also buzzwords.

Simplicity: This is key. Most of us who design menus know the benefits of putting boxes around special menu items and taking dollar signs off. But it's important to make the menu look as clean and simplified as possible, using as few words and images as possible to describe things. Sometimes boxes or icons work better. Millennials are used to instant information and short attention spans and look at their smartphones all day, so menus have to reflect that.

Branding: The menu has to match the branding because it's the largest sales piece. For instance, Jim 'N Nick's BBQ uses a very light shade of hickory for its menu to match the interior of the restaurant and has an image of a flying pig on the front to signal what the food might be. There's also a little history and a short story about the place. This is all just on the front page by the way.

Digital: High-end chains are already making the switch to digital menu boards, and this is the wave of the future. There are many more visual features — and menu psychology features — you can integrate into a flat-screen versus a paper menu. Nothing beats seeing steam rising from a burger or cheese melting down the side. I also have done a lot more work with graphic designers to build menus online. It is very important that the website and mobile site are integrated and that they match the Twitter feeds and Facebook page. The menu design also has to match the branding and decor of the physical restaurant itself.

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