At the beginning of 2015, it seemed that most restaurant chains had taken on the philosophy of the more menu items, the better. The average number of offerings at the top 500 restaurant chains, ranked by systemwide sales, then peaked at 137.7, according to Technomic’s MenuMonitor. But by the end of that year, menus had hit a two-year low, dropping 5.3% to an average of 130.4 items.
So how is menu size trending as we enter 2019? In general, it looks like the downsizing has leveled off, with the average chain menu hitting a little more than 132 items in mid-2018, per Technomic. That’s an overall drop of only 0.3% in the last five years. But a closer look at specific menu categories reveals a different story.
Where’s the action?
As appetizers and entrees have shrunk in number, add-ons have surged on menus. This category includes items such as specialty toppings, which consumers can opt to purchase at an additional cost—adding grilled chicken or shrimp to a Caesar salad, for example, or topping a burger with guacamole or bacon jam.
“We’re starting to see a bucking against the customization trend that was so prominent just a few years ago, in favor of signature crafted items, but with the option for add-ons at an additional cost,” says Lizzy Freier, menu analyst for Technomic.
Beverages are another hot category; drinks both with and without alcohol are trending up. Operators with bars are looking to capitalize on craft cocktail culture, while those without are trying to replace carbonated soft drinks with healthier, more flavor-forward options, such as fruit-infused waters and herbal iced teas.
Although overall growth in menu items has been flat, there’s been a lot of activity in limited-time offers. LTO launches have increased 63.9% in the last five years. These promotions are especially appealing to younger consumers: 39% would visit a quick-service restaurant they typically don’t visit and 38% would patronize a fast casual if a unique limited-time offer were available.
LTOs also work in operators’ favor, says Freier. “Purchasing unique or premium ingredients for only a short time requires less cost on the operator’s part and puts them in the position to source seasonal fare when it’s less expensive,” she says.
Shrinking labor = shrinking menus?
Many chains seemed to have found the “sweet spot” in terms of menu size, balancing a reduced number of items with frequent LTOs to keep customers interested, and provide plenty of options. Technomic expects that trend to continue in the short term.
And the ongoing labor shortage may result in even more consolidation, as operators work to maximize their menus and create operational efficiencies with minimal staff.