Picture menus: sin or savvy?

1 02 2008

Many restauranteurs would probably argue that pictures on a menu are just an outright abomination to the profession (Gordon Ramsey, for one). You don’t see any upscale restaurants with pictures on their menu, just a detailed description of the dish. To be sure, pictures on menus are reminiscent of fast food joints.

I’ll take the combo #2, super-sized.” No description needed, the picture says it all.

mmphogclakm zpechtorflam” is the reply from the speaker (that means “pull up” in drive-thru speak).

Is it a sin to have pictures on a menu? Any one of us can probably recall off the top of our head at least five restaurants we’ve been to with pictures on the menu (let’s see: Chili’s, Denny’s, Red Robin…hmm, all franchises – interesting). Do these restaurants know something that other restauranteurs don’t? I would venture to say that restaurants actually sell more of the pictured items, but I haven’t seen any data on this. Let me tell you what I think.

We’ve all heard the phrase “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Its one thing for me to tell you about the fantastic lunch I experienced the other day at Frida’s. But its quite another for me to actually show you what I ate. Since you cannot smell nor taste what I am describing, you have to rely on your brain’s previous connections and my excellent verbal skills to “virtually” taste the food. This is pretty difficult to do. However, when I throw a picture into the mix, allowing you to see presentation, color, and shape, its much easier for your brain to comprehend. Now we’re combining two of the senses: “Wow, that sounds delicious,” and “Oooh, that looks really good!”

I watched a show recently on Ferran Adria, who runs El Bulli in Spain, who photographically documents every single thing created in his kitchen (more like a lab, really). There are excellent pictures of his work at Chez Pim’s blog.

Adam Robert at The Amateur Gourmet has an excellent post on writing a food blog. One of his recommendations is to get a camera, reasoning that you can see food before you taste it and is, therefore, an integral part of blogging (or writing) about food. Isn’t a menu considered writing about food?

I’m certainly no expert in this, but I’m sure there are right and wrong ways to do this:

  1. The picture needs to be professional. Plate it well, light it properly, and take the best picture possible. There’s nothing worse than pictures that show sloppy plating or a messy tablecloth. If you can’t take professional photos yourself, don’t do it.
  2. Don’t put a picture of everything on your menu as it will dilute the effectiveness of what you are trying to convey. A picture of just one of the burgers should be enough.
  3. It better look like the picture when I get it. Everyone knows that the Big Mac on the menu board won’t actually look like the smashed sandwich you get in the wrapper. However, don’t make this a practice at your establishment.
  4. Your menu is your salesperson. Don’t skimp on doing this right and hire someone if you have to.
  5. Do put a picture of your specialty. This is what you are known for and you want to sell more of it, right?
  6. Don’t use the car ad disclaimer: “Artwork for representational purposes only.”

I’m sure there are a few others and I’d like to hear them.
So, again I ask: is it a sin to put pictures on a menu? As long as its done right, I think not. In fact, it could revolutionize your business through increased sales.

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One response

3 07 2008
Richard Fink

Franchises tend to have pictures on their menus so that customers that are not able to read can see what they are ordering. I have worked with two men in their late 40s who have a hard time reading. They tend to only go to restaurants with pictures on their menus.
I like to see a few pictures, especially if it is something most people may have not heard of before, on the menu.

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