by Salla Arffman, Trainer
”Well planned is half done” is a valid statement concerning menus, as well, and I dare to say that this is something everyone has noticed also in your kitchen at home. How nice it is to come home after a hard day at work, and know beforehand the answer to the following question: What are we going to have today?
In the professional kitchen the menu is one of the most critical elements of the operations. The menu defines the items and services offered to the customers, it provides the framework for the following weeks, days and shifts to come, and partly even specifies the tasks for the kitchen staff. For this reason, the menus need to be planned carefully and the impact of the menu evaluated in a broad perspective.
The basis for menu planning should come from the business idea of the organization, as well as from customer needs and expectations, and available resources. The objectives for different types of professional kitchens are different from each other and the quantities of food prepared vary from batches as much as thousands of pounds, down to single dishes, and this has to be taken into consideration also when planning the menu.
We know that when you have planned your menus successfully you can save time and money, and it has a huge impact on customer satisfaction, but it also has effect on the company image and on the employees’ well-being. The menu is one of the management tools, it leads the organization into the right direction and defines the need for staff. Menu plans are not successful if the equipment capacity and the human resources are continuously overloaded.
So you need to plan your menu carefully, but it also needs to be dynamic in this ever changing world. The availability of ingredients varies, new items keep popping up all the time and the food trends change. This is why you can actually never stop planning, and a good menu is flexible, as well.
The basis for menu planning in restaurants and institutional kitchens
The menus of restaurants and institutional kitchens differ from each other, so the focus needs to be different in different types of professional kitchens.
In a restaurant the business idea pretty much determines the content of the menu, and you can communicate the company values with the menu. The amount of customers might vary substantially and in addition to lunch you often serve dinner and à la carte dishes, for which the ingredient costs and cooking methods might be completely different. When the food is prepared in the same space, and often even by the same people, you need to aim at building your menu so that the ingredients, the equipment capacity and the human resources can be utilized efficiently. When choosing a restaurant, the customer makes his/her decision specifically based on the menu, and this is why the menu should be appealing and interesting to the customer.
In an institutional kitchen the basis for menu planning comes from the nutritional guidelines, the amount of diners and the ingredient costs. Menus are often rotating, and it will be easier to predict both the need for ingredients and the work schedule for the coming weeks, and to make sure that the same dishes are not recurring on the menu too often. If the customer base for the institutional kitchen is wide (ranging from toddlers to seniors), you need to plan the menu so that it can be utilized broadly to different customer groups. Equipment capacity and human resources have a big impact especially when planning the menu for an institutional kitchen, and new production methods enable utilizing the resources more efficiently. Gone are the days, when in an institutional kitchen you prepared lunch in the morning and the kitchen was empty for the rest of the day.
Whether we are talking about a restaurant or an institutional kitchen, when planning the menu, you should pay attention to the availability of ingredients, seasonal items, sustainability, food safety and of course the customer expectations and the company policies.
You can never be sure which dish will be a success, and even if a dish was popular in the summer time, it might stay untouched in the winter time. Furthermore, the customers appreciate variation as much as they appreciate stability, so the menu planning remains to be constant balancing between these two.
Restaurant management systems as a part of menu planning
Planning your menus with software systems is what you do today. Customers demand for more information on the nutritional aspects of food, allergens and ingredients, and the software systems enable providing this information quickly and effortlessly. Already building a week’s menu without a software system is exhausting, if you want to provide the customer with any other information than the name of the dish.
A restaurant management system enables you to:
- monitor the nutritional values on your menu and compare them to the nutritional guidelines
- do costing
- estimate portion sizes and the amounts of diners, and print for instance your shopping list or instructions based on them
- follow sales and wastage of food
Time will tell, how software systems evolve and what kind of impact it will have on menu planning in the future. You will be able to provide more information related to the meals and maybe artificial intelligence will revolutionize the whole functionality, and the software will suggest changes to the menu based on customer feedback, wastage, availability of ingredients and nutritional guidelines. While waiting for this to happen, deciding on the dishes to be served is still the task of the menu planner.