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Why Menus Are Slightly Growing, But Still Remain Small

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January 30, 2023

Starting in 2020, as a response to the pandemic and rising food costs, many restaurant owners scaled-down menus. Even popular chains known for extensive menus made a move to trim down their offerings. IHOP, for example, went from a 12-page menu to just two pages

Now, a few years later, smaller menus have become commonplace. However, there are signs of them slowly starting to build back up. What’s ahead for menu growth? We share all the details below.

The State of Restaurant Menu Growth

According to recent statistics, menus are expanding slightly, which is a good sign for restaurants. Technomic’s Industry Insight report reveals that the quantity of menu items are increasing across the board:

  • Appetizers: +1.2 percent
  • Sides: +1 percent
  • Entrees: +0.9 percent
  • Dessert: +0.3 percent
  • Add-ons: +1.1 percent
  • Non-alcoholic beverages: +0.2 percent

Overall, menus have grown approximately 0.9 percent between 2021 (Q3) and 2022 (Q3), and 2.2 percent over the past three years. However, restaurant owners are asking if this trend is expected to continue or if smaller menus are here to stay.

Menus have grown 2.2% over the past three years.

The Case for Small Menus

There are many reasons behind the small menu craze, including saving on food costs and mitigating labor shortages.

Food Costs

Rising food costs are a driving factor in menus getting smaller. The summer of 2021 saw a 10 percent increase in fish prices in some areas. Some beef product costs were up 25.4 percent in 2022, and some vegetable prices increased by 40 percent

In order to preserve healthy food cost margins, restaurants revamped their menus by nixing less popular, more expensive dishes and choosing more cost-effective ingredients.

Labor Challenges

Labor shortages also had a considerable role in menu item reduction. Restaurants lost a large part of their front-of-house and back-of-house workforce in 2020. Even today, labor shortages are still being felt in the food service industry. More simplified menus require less prep and less service staff to execute. This allows chefs and restaurant owners to mitigate labor shortages and still serve exceptional food to customers. 

Dwindling labor numbers rippled through other food service industries, including shipping companies, farms, and distribution companies. These shortages affected supply chains, which also affected access to products and helped push food prices higher. Limited menus are a way establishments can cope with limited access to supplies and ingredients.

Paired-down menus showcase precision and focus.

What Does the Future Hold for Menu Size?

It seems like small menus will be around a bit longer. However, there is still no denying they are expanding slightly. The reasons for this are multifaceted:

First, supply chains are bouncing back. For example, shipments by sea prices dropped 73 percent to near pre-pandemic costs. Less supply chain disruptions give restaurants more predictability and flexibility in their ingredients and other products. 

Secondly, restaurants are adding more items that meet modern customers’ desires. As a means to entice customers, restaurants are adding exciting new menu items to boost their client base. Plant-based proteins are exploding on the scene. Technomic points out that plant-based fish is up 37.5 percent, and meat-free sandwiches increased by 16 percent. Popular new grains like couscous and quinoa are trending as well. 

Thirdly, establishments recognize that paired-down menus showcase precision and focus, to which both chefs and customers respond. Offering six entrees instead of sixteen means even greater attention to detail on each dish while reducing customer fatigue from having to choose from a large menu. Chefs can focus on quality, ingredients, technique, and presentation more thoroughly. This, in turn, can help boost customer satisfaction, which can translate into loyal patrons.

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