For the inaugural reads, Chef Duffy reviewed the menus of three New England restaurants: Dock Street Bar & Grill, Harpoon Hanna’s, and Michael’s Café Raw Bar & Grill. All feature seafood heavily, of course, but also offer classics such as wings, quesadillas, burgers and salads.
We didn’t prep Chef Duffy by providing him the menus before we went live on Instagram. If you know anything about our favorite chef, you know he’s honest, outspoken and pulls no punches. To give the operators who participated and the followers who joined us the best information, we wanted Chef Duffy’s immediate, honest reactions and input. (One important note: Chef Duffy didn't approach these read-throughs with snark or mean-spirited criticism. He was respectful and praised more than he criticized. We're doing this to help operators improve their menus and make more money.)
Be sure to follow us on Instagram @NightclubBar so you can participate in our next Chef Duffy Live Menu Read event. You don’t want to miss out his valuable menu programming, layout and pricing tips and tricks. Plus, you’re sure to pick up some inside Chef Duffy information in the form of his recipes.
One of the biggest takeaways from yesterday’s live menu event is that Chef Duffy wants operators to have fun. He wants you to have fun when creating menu items and fun coming up with their names and descriptions. There are enough tasks in this business that aren’t fun—menu programming gives you the chance to be creative and enjoy yourself.
Chef Duffy also hit this point several times: Make sure to use creative descriptions. Are the red peppers on a certain item roasted? If so, tell the guest! However, be mindful of your use of space and fonts. “Menu is real estate,” said Chef Duffy. He likened menus to cul-de-sacs: Your goal is to maximize your cul-de-sac’s footprint (menu) to fit all your friends (items) in it.
Check this out: How to Amp Up Your Menu
“Unless you are Cheesecake Factory, you shouldn’t have these long, drawn out, 45-page menus,” he cautioned. The longer your descriptions, the longer your guests are in the restaurant reading your menu, leading to longer turn times. So, using Dock Street Bar & Grill’s review as an example, if you have multiple tacos, create a “Tacos” section and maximize space by mentioning the common items that come on them. Underneath that, list the different options.
You can also maximize menu real estate by focusing on the descriptors that will really sell an item to a guest. Dock Street mentioned that their tacos feature fresh salsa, something most guests likely already assume. Chef Duffy suggested telling people if there are roasted jalapenos instead of mentioning the salsa. He also advised Dock Street to replace their cilantro sour cream with a crema and their shaved red cabbage with pickled red cabbage (one benefit being that the pickled version will hold longer).
Dock Street asked Chef Duffy during his review if he likes to include food images on menus. The chef doesn’t like that at all, preferring to create images for items through their descriptions. Let the guest create images in their head and try to match that vision, advised Chef Duffy.
Creating descriptions and laying out menus is fun but you still need to pay attention to the details. Once you’ve finished drafting your menu text, Chef Duffy suggests sending it to several people in a Word doc. Ask them to look for and highlight any spelling and grammar mistakes so you can correct them before going to print. Think of it this way: Would you put up a billboard or buy an ad that gets thousands of eyes on it with spelling mistakes? Of course not—that wouldn’t make you look professional or serious about your craft. If you need to, Google menu items to check spelling and buy The New Food Lover’s Companion as another resource, says Chef Duffy.
When it comes to layout, remember how people read menus: They start at the top left, move to the top right, head down to the right bottom, slide over to the bottom left, and go back up. That’s Menu Eye Travel 101. Bearing in mind, Chef Duffy cautioned, that most guests are only going to read the very top of a menu—where the name, phone number and address should be—once and not return. However, that’s still a good place to list your social media channels and the hashtags you want guests to use.
Dock Street Bar & Grill (Annapolis, Maryland)
Returning to Dock Street once again, Chef Duffy noticed that their shrimp salad sandwich, signature burger and chicken sandwich were all priced at $14. He recommended changing the prices to $16 for the shrimp salad sandwich and $15 for the burger but keeping the chicken sandwich at $14. Not only can this small adjustment generate more revenue, it builds on value perception.
Speaking of sandwiches, separate them from burgers (if you have multiple) and make them Instagrammable. Make such an impression on the guest, said Chef Duffy, that the first thing they’ll want to do is snap a photo and post it to social media. When they’re moved to do that, they give you free advertising.
Another price Chef Duffy felt could be increased was for Dock Street’s fish and chips. This entrée was listed just down the menu from the sandwiches for $11. Chef Duffy felt that price was too low, negatively impacting the perception of value. He recommended raising the price to $16-17, a significant but possibly profitable adjustment.
Speaking of sandwiches, make them Instagrammable. Make such an impression on the guest that the first thing they’ll want to do is snap a photo and post it to social media, giving you free advertising. Also, consider separate sections for sandwiches and burgers.
When Chef Duffy came across Dock Street’s build-your-own quesadilla section, there weren’t many items listed. The chef suggested creating a BYO section with all options listed, making it more fun. In fact, Chef Duffy suggested that BYO quesadillas present an excellent opportunity for operators to elevate their plates rather than get comfortable on their plates—guests are getting tired of the standard chicken and cheese in most quesadillas.
He liked the flatbreads on Dock Street’s menu but wanted the entire audience to know that “flatbreads aren’t pizzas,” so make sure ingredients are spread out to the edges. They’re “smaller portions, higher flavor,” so make every flavorful bite count.
One thing that all three restaurants had on their menus was crab dip made with lump crab. Chef Duffy cautioned against the use of jumbo lump crab because it’s just too pricey to use for a dip. The point of jumbo lump crab is to be visually appealing to guests when it arrives. The chef suggested using crab claw meat instead to lower costs.
Harpoon Hanna’s (Fenwick Island, Delaware)
The biggest takeaway for Chef Duffy regarding the Harpoon Hanna’s menu is that it was huge. The restaurant is a 900-seat venue in a market with clear on and off seasons. Chef Duffy advised the restaurant to create a limited menu for the slower times. Harpoon Hanna’s confirmed that they do pare down the menu for the slow season.
Reading through the many mouthwatering items, Chef Duffy thought it would be a good idea to add technique descriptors: grilled, broiled, blackened, fried. He really liked the sides and add-ons offered at Harpoon Hanna’s but cautioned the audience to make certain such items are working for them. This is where weekly inventory comes into play—monthly inventory just doesn’t help track performance.
Check this out: How to Get Your Weekdays to Not Suck
The prices on the Harpoon Hanna’s menu ended in $0.99, which Chef Duffy doesn’t like to see on any menus. Just use whole dollars because guests are thinking that way anyway.
Michael’s Café (Timonium, Maryland)
This venue is upscale and the menu reflects it. We limited this live read to one hour and didn’t get through the entire menu. However, an interesting bit of information from Chef Duffy came when he encountered microgreens. He called them “the chopped parsley” of 2015 through the 2020s—everybody is using them. To stand out and elevate the plate, the chef suggested dressing up microgreens with a bit of vinaigrette or whatever will complement the dish.
- For a chicken salad sandwich, use the thigh instead of the breast to improve flavor.
- If you’re using avocados, consider letting guests know from the start that there’s an upcharge because they’ve gotten so expensive. Guests see the prices increasing in grocery stores, so they’ll understand if you charge $1 for a side of guacamole.
- Chef Duffy isn’t a fan of chicken fingers: “Get ‘em off the menu—that’s for kids, not for adults.”
- If you have a larger menu, run your P-mix to see if you really need every item. You may be surprised to see how many items aren’t performing. If they’re not doing well, toss them.
- 60% of guests will order a dessert if they’re shown one.
- Chef Duffy is tired of coming across grilled lemon as an accompaniment to entrees and appetizers.
Want Chef Brian Duffy to go through your menu? Send your menu to [email protected] and follow us on Instagram. If your menu is chosen, Chef Duffy will review it live on Instagram!