What's on the Menu?

By Vicki Powers, Contributing Editor | May 07, 2009

Menu analysis technology provides restaurants with a wealth of information to not only gauge the nutritional value of their menu items but to also accurately determine portions to control inventory costs. Daniel Connolly, Ph.D, associate dean for undergraduate programs at the University of Denver's Daniels College of Business, says increased legal requirements and consumer demand are driving restaurants to this technology. The economy certainly plays a hand in the mix, as well.
With patronage declining, restaurants are turning to business intelligence and menu analysis tools to gain business insights to cut costs, grow revenues, and identify sources of advantage, Connolly says. Restaurants, like any business, want to reduce costs wherever possible, especially if they can do so without adversely impacting quality of service or quality of the experience.
 
The following illustrate some of the most important features restaurant operators look for in menu analysis technology.

Unlimited access
Mixt Greens, (www.mixtgreens.com) a San Francisco-based restaurant with organic salads and handcrafted sandwiches, added menu analysis technology recently as a benefit for its customers. Mixt Greens selected MenuCalc (www.menucalc.com), a Web-based nutrition analysis solution by FoodCalc, which Leslie Swallow, chief development officer at Mixt Greens, describes as the perfect tool. MenuCalc offers unlimited access to input ingredients or create new recipes, which is an important feature for Mixt Greens. It also offers storage tools for archiving recipes, menus and reports.
 
Although California law requires restaurants with more than 20 units to provide nutritional information to customers, Swallow says her three-unit restaurant does it because they want to.
 
"We feel it's important to maintain a healthy diet, and this data gives quantitative proof that our food is healthy," Swallow relates.

Flexibility

Mixt Greens spoke to several dieticians about their menu analysis services; but with 70 salad options and a rotating seasonal menu, Swallow says it would have been a nightmare moving forward with that option, as well as extremely costly and time consuming, since the dietician business model required payment-per-ingredient in the menu.
 
"Our chef tweaks recipes all the time, so this solution gives us control of the analysis rather than relying on an outsider," Swallow says. She says it's also a great tool to help with the creative process as the chef develops new recipes. The restaurant can examine the nutritional data and make changes, if needed, to limit the amount of fat and cholesterol in their recipes.
 
As for accessibility for customers, Mixt Greens decided to position the nutritional data of its menu items on its Web site rather than outwardly displaying it in the restaurant. This allows customers to make a decision for themselves, Swallow says, without throwing the data in their face. "We think it' a good tool for those who care," Swallow relates.

Reporting capabilities
Menu analysis reporting was one of the most important features for B.R. Guest Restaurants (www.brguestrestaurants.com) as it considered menu analysis technology. The company, which operates 15 restaurants in New York and Las Vegas, transitioned to menu analysis technology at the beginning of the decade when it switched to a Windows-based solution. It selected Eatec Solutions by Agilysys (www.agilysys.com) with modules for menu-recipe analysis to control its inventory and food costs.
 
Report data is critical to spot menu trends, such as the highest and lowest food sellers, and to track high food cost items, according to Rocky Lucia, director of technology for B.R. Guest Restaurants. Lucia also says his restaurant company wanted to have the flexibility in building menu items by putting all the ingredients in and generating food costs.

"To this day, six or seven years later, we still use the theoretical food costing each week, which compares what our food costs should be, based on recipes and menu items, versus sales," Lucia relates.

Pricing guidance
B.R. Guest Restaurants relies on menu analysis technology to help determine pricing for its menu items. By putting the amount of each ingredient into the system for each recipe, B.R. Guest can accurately price its menu items.
 
"To put all the ingredients in and get a cost for it is the power of menu analysis," Lucia relates. Menu analysis technology helped B.R. Guest Restaurants dramatically reduce food costs when it first started using the solution. It also helps gauge the success of specials the restaurants may try, and tracks how many it needs to sell to be profitable.
 
University of Denver's Connolly sums it up best: "Menu analysis technology is important to help determine how well menu items are selling, how to merchandise items, and how to increase profitability."
 

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