When we bought our first restaurant in 1999, it had a large, unfocused menu that was difficult to reproduce in the tiny commercial kitchen. There were close to 100 menu items, and none of the cooks could make the same dishes in the same way. This lack of consistency was one of the biggest problems - customers were wary of ordering anything other than a burger and fries because there was a 50/50 chance the food wouldn't taste the same as the last time they had ordered it. That first menu also lacked any signature items - dishes that really represented the restaurant and its core concept. The first thing we did as new owners was to revamp the menu. We still offered a lot of menu items, because that was the trend in those days. However, we made sure that ingredients were cross-utilized in a number of dishes, helping to reduce waste. We also added a signature dish to each menu category - something customers could only get at our restaurant. The result was a steady uptick in business, with excellent feedback from customers.
Bigger Isn't Always Better
If we were to open a new restaurant today, we would make the menu even smaller and more streamlined than our first restaurant. Too many choices can be overwhelming, for both the staff and the customers. A popular research study from Columbia University revealed that people prefer fewer choices than more - it makes the decision process that much easier. Thanks to the recent recession, restaurant menus, in general, are smaller and simpler - reflecting tighter budgets for both the restaurant and the consumer. In an effort to control costs, many big chains have cut down the number of items on their menu and dropped items that don't fit with their brand. Olive Garden and McDonald's have both trimmed menus in an effort to save money and improve service. As an independent restaurant, the same principles apply.
Don't Dismiss Comfort Food
A classic mistake of many new restaurants is trying to introduce new foods to their customers. While many customers, particularly Millennials, are looking for food with a story or other food adventures, they still want food they understand and recognize. Comfort foods, like burgers, chicken pie, a classic cut of beef will always be in vogue. Instead of trying to dazzle your customers with unfamiliar items, instead focus on good quality ingredients, a great presentation, and excellent customer service. Embracing local foods and the farm to table movement is more effective and inexpensive than shipping in ingredients from far off places.
Consider Your Restaurant Kitchen
Another argument for keeping a restaurant menu small is the size of your restaurant kitchen. If you are working out of a tiny commercial kitchen with limited storage space, having a smaller, streamlined menu makes more sense. Trying to produce a gigantic variety of menu items with only a fraction of the space or equipment means long waits for food and running out of items - neither of which enhance the customer experience. Some of the best restaurants in the world operate out of tiny kitchens - because they offer a simple, but excellent menu.
Consider Your Kitchen Staff
If you are only willing to pay minimum wage for your kitchen staff, don't expect a five-star meal. Talent requires money. Restaurants have a high employee turnover, so if you want to keep good chefs and good line cooks, you need to pay them accordingly. If your budget doesn't permit a professional chef (or you are the professional chef) make sure your kitchen staff can cook everything on the menu, as well. If they can't, you need to invest time in training them. Expecting your kitchen staff to reproduce your menu, without the right skills needed, is a recipe for failure.
There is no concrete answer to how many items a restaurant menu should have on it. It depends on your budget, space, and staffing. At the core, offering good quality food in a good quality atmosphere is the most important part of your restaurant menu.