Catering: When is a Menu not a Menu?

Riddle me this, Batman: when is a menu not a menu? I know, it’s not likely that the Riddler ever said that. Nonetheless, it’s a legitimate question. Merriam-Webster Online says that a menu is “a list of the dishes that may be ordered (as in a restaurant) or that are to be served (as at a banquet)”.

Other sources also define menu along the same lines, “list of dishes”, “list of options for the diner”, etc.

It seems to me that the authors of many banquet-catering menus (Chefs? Catering Directors? F&B Directors?) are doing a great job of keeping up with Merriam and friends, because that’s what their catering menus are: a list of dishes that can be ordered.

So, let’s riddle again, using the definition: when is a menu not a “list of dishes”? The answer: when it’s a marketing tool.

We often “get” this in our restaurants, though not always. Then when it comes to catering, everything we learned about menu merchandising is forgotten. Someone smarter than I pointed out that advertising/marketing people in general would “kill” to get their marketing message in front of a customer immediately before they make the “buy” decision. Yet in food and beverage, we are able to do that, and often do not.

One important distinction between restaurant menus and catering menus: the restaurant guest usually looks at the menu after they sit down – they have already decided to “buy”. For the banquet-catering customer this is not always the case. Sure, if there is already a group room block committed to the hotel then it is likely that the customer’s F&B business will be with you – as in a restaurant situation. But with a local event, whether business or social, it is likely the customer is shopping multiple venues. (This is why different occasion-based menus should be developed – see my earlier blog, “Catering Menus – What’s the Occasion?”)

If the customer is shopping multiple venues, which of these do you prefer they have in their hands:

a)     A “list of dishes”
b)    A compelling marketing piece

If you selected “b”, but you’re still offering “a”, here are some ideas for enhancing your current offering: 

  1. Tell the story. What is your story, what makes you special? Is it immediately apparent when I pick up (or download) your menu?
  2. Speaking of “immediately apparent”, I have actually seen menu PDF files whose first 1-3 pages is “rules” or “requirements”. What would happen if a car salesman told you “before I show you our remarkable, beautiful shiny new x-car, please read these required monthly maintenance instructions”.
  3. Speaking of PDF files: do you have any idea how many banquet-catering files are named “banquet menu”? Set yourself apart right at the start with a memorable name, even if its just the name of your hotel. Imagine a bride-to-be with seven files on her computer, all labeled “banquet menu”.
  4. Brag about your Chef and/or your catering team – inject personality and soul into the menu.
  5. Make it easy for the customer to get – or at least see – the menu. It’s 2010 and many properties have yet to post their menus on line. Often their competitors already do.  Why would you have an electronic marketing tool – and then hide it from the public?
  6. What is your culinary signature? Your specialty? The dish (or cooking style or cuisine) that sets you apart?
  7. Are your descriptions descriptive, or are they mini-lists? Does your menu read like a contract, or do the descriptions tickle my salivary glands, make me want to try the food? Now.
  8. In 2010 the customer wants ease and flexibility in ordering – are your lunch and dinner options listed in an à la carte format?

 Those are my thoughts, let me know yours.

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