Writing a menu that will attract business

Have you ever had someone stop you in the hallway and ask for some ideas for their next event?  Like me, did your brain freeze up while you struggled for something to say?  What if they asked you how much for a spaghetti dinner?  Would you be able to give them a price that is both fair and accurate?  How would you feel if someone from outside the church asked for a menu, but you didn’t have anything to give them?  These are opportunities for your ministry to either shine, or fade away.  If excellence and growth are goals of your ministry, a professional well written menu is necessary.

There are many advantages to having a written menu.  It will standardize your operation.  It will give you control over what you serve.  Instead of people asking if you can do their grandmother’s favorite cornbread recipe, you will have an opportunity to say, “This is what we can do.”  That way, your guests will not be wondering which recipe you are following every time they sit down. A menu will also help with your inventory, which in turn will help with your fiscal responsibility for the ministry.  It will allow you to pare down the amount of ingredients you keep on hand.  That in itself has proven to cut down on waste, spoilage, high inventory costs, storage costs, and theft.

Your ministry will have focus.  Instead of trying to do everything for everyone, it will allow you to do what you do the best.  By all means, if someone has ideas of what they want, work with them.  After all, you are doing this for them.  However, in a situation where neither side has definite ideas for an event, being able to present a menu of your best stuff will shift control from the guest to you.  After all, no one knows your abilities and strengths better than you. Writing a menu does have some cons, as well.  It is time consuming and can be costly, but the short term sacrifice will be worth the long term gain as you standardize and focus your ministry.

The Effective Menu

Writing a menu is more than putting together a few of your favorite recipes.  Few people can just type up a menu, and those are people with a lot of skills, knowledge, and practice.  The rest of us have to take a lot of factors into consideration.  Factors such as balance, market appeal, ease of understanding, and lastly, a great first impression.

Balance in a menu does not mean that each side weighs the same, or you can put it on your head and walk a straight line.  Instead, there is a variety of items on the menu.  A steak house has a lot of beef steaks on the menu, but today’s restaurants also have chicken, salads, seafood, and desserts.  When writing your menu, think of your abilities.  Think of a variety of dishes that will appeal to a variety of people.  Just because everyone likes chicken does not mean that only chicken should be on your menu.  Have a few different chicken dishes (stuffed, Marsala, supreme, cordon blue).  If you only have one from a type of meat, make sure it is the best available.  For example, with only one steak on the menu, don’t put top butt sirloin on there, use the filet mignon.  You want all the meals to be special and different from what they can make at home.  Give them a reason to come to your place for dinner.

An effective menu also appeals to your market.  While a variety of menu items will appeal to a variety of people, the right choices will attract the people in your market.  If you are a ministry with a lot of senior citizens, use basic food items.  If you have a younger, educated clientele, rich heavy sauces are more in order.  You can still have a variety on your menu, but you must appeal to your target market.  If you don’t know who your target is, look at the guests coming in for Wednesday Night Dinner or drive around the neighborhood.  Who comes to church on Sunday morning?  These are the people you want to target first.

Your menu must be clear and understandable.  Show it to some people.  Do they know what is included?     Do they know what Steak Dianne is?  Can they figure out how much the entire banquet will cost?  If these basic questions cannot be answered without discussion, a rewrite is necessary. A great menu will give a great first impression.  A boring menu will give a boring first impression.  If it is posted on your website, there is no smiling face handing it to them.  Does your menu speak for itself?  What does it say about your ministry?  Hopefully, it says quality, professionalism, and excellence.

Before You Begin

Before the first item is added to your menu, a few things need to be considered.  Just because your family likes it does not mean it belongs on a menu.  Run each menu item through the criteria test.  The first thing you need to do is determine what equipment you have, both front of the house (dining room) and back of the house (kitchen).  If you do not have a proofer, do not expect to make you own breads.  If you don’t have a fryer (unheard of for southern cooking), do not put fried chicken on the menu.  If you do not have the ability to hold hot food at temp in the dining room (chafers), do not put a buffet on the menu.  That said, just because you do not have a necessary piece of equipment does not mean you cannot pull it off.  Food service is both creative and inventive.  I just would not advertise on a printed menu that you can do it.  That is something to invest in as banquets increase.

Also, just because you have the right equipment to prepare something doesn’t mean you are not out of the woods yet.  What kind of personnel do you have?  Do you have skilled labor?  Are you going to have to end up doing everything?  Do you have more volunteers than you have work for?  Do you have staff or volunteers that are available early in the morning?  If not, maybe breakfast should not be on your menu.  Is a menu item simplistic, but labor intensive when done for a lot of people?  Only you can answer these questions, but they must be answered.  Do not print a menu only to discover that you cannot provide something on it.

Write the Menu-Rough Draft

Now that you have determined what your guests want, and what you can do, it is time to put your ideas into writing.  Build on your strengths.  Chances are that what you love to prepare, your guests will also love.  Match your target.  Give them what they want, not necessarily what you want.  When writing the descriptions for each item, be enticing, but not confusing.  Chances are, your guest are more concerned with what a “shitake” is, not where it came from, or how many 12 letter words you can use to describe it.

The layout of the menu is also important.  Will it be a single page or multiple?  One column or more?  Will different courses be together, or have its own section.  Remember, people do not want to read a lot of unnecessary verbiage to find what they need to know.  Make it easy for your dinner client to find the dinner menu.  Make it easy for the bride to find the reception packages.

Also, when writing your menu, think of the whole dining experience.  Does the menu flow just like you want the meal to flow?  Does one course lead to another, or is it short and choppy?  Will there be a reception outside the dining room before dinner, a soup course, dessert in another location, or at another time?  Answering these questions will help you determine what to include.

One last consideration.  What is included in the menu price and what is extra?  Does your market want a la carte or price fix?  There is no standard answer, as both will work.  Your guest must know what they are getting for their money.  You do not want to surprise them after the event with extra costs that were not expected.  If something is not included, make sure they understand this.  On our menu, the dinner meal includes room set-up, service, linen, china and silverware, salad, beverage, entrée, and clean-up.  We have many items that can be added such as desserts, appetizers, and colored linens.  For us, this flexibility allows our guests to customize a banquet to match their budget.

Write the Recipes

    This is probably the hardest and most time consuming part of the menu writing process.  However, it is the most critical.  Having standardized recipes is an important tool that provides you with vital information such as cost and inventory, as well as providing your guests with a consistent product. A correct and accurate recipe is the backbone of a successful Food Service Ministry.  If you do not know how much an item costs, you cannot know how much to charge.  Make sure everything gets written into the recipe and the crew follows the recipe exactly.  The following are a few guidelines to writing a recipe.

The recipe must be clear and concise.  Make sure that everyone who reads the recipe will be able to understand what goes in, how much goes in, and how to prepare it.  Guessing can be very costly to your ministry from ruined and inedible food to upset guests.  Try to keep it simple as well.  Does is really need to be three tablespoons plus 1/8 teaspoon?  Can you use a short cut such as a spice blend as opposed to measuring out seven different spices?  If it needs to be made from scratch, okay, but in parts that do not matter, use substitutes from ready made foods.  Show it to a teenager.  If he can understand it and follow it, it is probably good to go.  Our recipes include specifics on the ingredients, quantities, method of prep, yield, description of final product, and shelf life. Type the recipe.

The recipe must be accurate and detailed.  Do not simply say a can of corn.  State size of can as well as any other pertinent information such a grade or color.  Make sure the quantities are accurate.  Is that a tablespoon or a teaspoon?  Make the recipe as it is written.  This will help you find any typos or mistakes.  It is better that you find the mistake, than 100 of your guests. In addition, make sure the recipe is expandable.  Can your recipe for 6 be expanded to make 100?  What adjustments must be made?  Very rarely can a recipe from home be used exactly in food service.  Be creative. Lastly, the recipe must be accessible to anyone making the item.  Laminate the recipes and make sure that everyone uses and follows it.  Do not use your recipe book as decoration in the office.  It is a tool to be used.  This will insure consistency and success.

Cost your Recipe

Costing your recipes is the key to accurate pricing on your menu.  There are many factors in getting the accurate price.  First, you must get the right costs.  If your costs are wrong, your pricing will be wrong, but how do you find the accurate cost of a menu item?  After you have written the recipe, get your invoices and figure your unit costs.  If a case of marinara sauce is $30, than each can is $5.  If you need 3 cans for the recipe, the cost of that one item is $15.  Do that for each item on the recipe card.  Then add up all the totals.  This is your target food cost.  (We add and extra 7% for extras such as butter, spices, etc.  Don’t get bogged down with the tiny stuff.)  This is not your menu price.  Keep in mind that the cost of ingredients changes often, sometimes weekly.  If it is February and strawberries are in season and cheap (not this year), do not expect the price to be the same in summer.  You will want the menu price to be able to cover all seasons.  If you expect wide changes in the cost of an ingredient, use the higher price when costing.

The rule of thumb for menu pricing is three times the food cost; therefore multiply the cost by three.  If the recipe costs out at $3.75, the ideal menu price is $11.25.  Be careful, though.  This is the cost and price of a recipe.  If your menu includes beverage, salad, dessert, etc, those items must be added together before multiplying by three. The reason you multiply by three is to cover labor and overhead.  You can also price out the menu by factoring in exactly how much labor is required.  Generally speaking, high labor items generally have a lower food cost, while low labor items will have a high food cost.  A carved fruit display needs to have a lower food cost than a bag of potato chips.

Adjust Price

Now that you have come up with exact prices for all of your menu items, it is time to adjust these prices.  You cannot be rigid in the pricing on the menu.  Do not keep a steady 33% food cost.  Some items will have a higher food cost, while others have a lower food cost.  But how do you determine how to adjust the prices?  Again, you need to look at your target.  Most importantly, what can the market bear?  With a constant food cost, a chicken dish may price at $5 while a steak may price at $12.  This is a wide gap between these two.  Raise the price of the chicken and lower the price of the steak.  In this example, probably raise the chicken to $8 and the steak to $10.50.  Again, this depends on what the market will bear.  This price adjusting will help the menu flow well and keep people from picking an item just because it is the lowest price, although that will still happen frequently.  The benefit of the adjusted price is that when the guest picks the lower menu price, your contribution margin can actually be better.  Contribution Margin is the amount of money that goes to fixed costs after covering the variable costs.  In the above example, at its first price, the CM for the chicken is approximately $1.50 after food and labor.  The CM for the steak is $4.00.  However, with this gap, most people will pick the chicken and you will only make $1.50.  However, after the adjustment, the CM changes to $4.50 for the chicken which is more than the steak.  Therefore, more people will still pick the chicken because it is cheaper, but you will put more money toward your fixed costs.  Even if they pick the steak, your CM will be $2.50, which is still more than the original CM of the chicken.

Since we are in ministry, not a for-profit business, why is this important?  Shouldn’t we just cover costs?  Many churches have this attitude when it comes to food service.  However, as a revenue producing ministry of your church, and probably the only one in your church, it is good stewardship to make the best use of the money invested.  Making money on some of your banquets will allow you to do several things.  One, you can buy the extra and necessary equipment you do not have, hire staff for a growing ministry, or use it for training and education.  Two, you can give it back to your church budget.  This will make your ministry less of a draw on the budget, and free up some money the church can use to support missionaries, local ministries, or in these economic times, pay some bills.  We find that here at FBCO, we charge less than local banquet facilities, so outside groups coming onto our campus (remember, bringing people in who won’t come to church is the reason we do what we do), are thrilled to pay the amount we charge.  If what you do is professional, excellent, comparable, and less expensive, they will pay for your services, probably more than you think.

Final Draft

Now that the menu items are chosen, costed, and priced, it is time for the final draft.  Ask yourself the following questions.  How does is look?  Professional or cheesy?  Do the prices match each other?  Do the selections and courses flow?  Will people want to eat from the menu?  Show it to people whose opinion you value.  What is their first impression?  What can they tell about your ministry from the menu?  Does it match what you are trying to say?  Do not be scared to do several drafts before finding the right combination.  Remember, your menu speaks for you when you cannot.


Now is not the time to cut corners.  Work with a professional printer, one you feel comfortable with.  They will have ideas to bring the project up a notch or two.  You are professional, so your menu should look professional.  Then proof read, proof read, and proof read again before final printing.  A spelling error will look horrible and will cast your ministry in the wrong light.

Get Your Menu into Hands

You are done. You have put in the hours. You have done a jillion rewrites. You now have in your hands a beautiful and professional work of art.  Do not just let it sit on your bookshelf.  Get it out to everybody who will and may use your ministry.  Give it to every pastor’s assistant, every local church, and every local organization in your area including the YMCA, Chamber of Commerce, and public schools.  A good menu will bring in the business you need to have a successful Food Service Ministry.

If you have any questions or comments, you can email me.

Michael Brunton, Executive Chef, Ridgecrest Conference Center