by Larissa Gutscher

One of the hardest parts of running your own restaurant or quick service shop is determining what you should sell. Maybe you started with a simple idea, but customer feedback and new inspirations have drastically expanded your product offering. You could make the argument that having more options on your menu means satisfying more customers with different tastes. The reality is, too much choice can be overwhelming, and providing too many options may actually be hurting your business.

The Importance of Specialization

Some people go out to eat knowing exactly what they want, and make every effort to go somewhere that they know will serve them whatever it is they’re craving. Others prefer to be inspired by whatever they see on the menu and prefer not to get too specific, only to be let down if they can’t decide what the best choice is.

When you include a lot of items on your menu, you might cater to a large amount of people in the first group. If you can serve whatever it is your customer is yearning for, then maybe they’ll think of your restaurant first when they want to eat out, right? The problem is, if you dabble in a little bit of everything, you lose focus on what you’re best at.

Too Many Menu Choices

There are lots of restaurants that specialize in a certain type of food. The more different foods you serve, the more competitors you amass. If you’re serving both Chinese takeout and donairs, you suddenly have a lot of little shops to compete with who offer either takeout or donairs – and your customer might instead consider one of them to satisfy their cravings, especially if they have just a little bit more experience making donairs than you do.

Instead, focus on what you’re best at. You can’t please everyone, but you can put in extra effort to wow the customers who are interested in eating what you can cook well. Sometimes it’s just more valuable to be “the shop with the best curry in the city” rather than “the shop that has a little bit of everything”.

The Science Behind Choosing

Once you’ve decided what kind of cuisine to specialize in, you still might need to restrain yourself in the variety of dishes you create. Have you ever sat in a restaurant with a seemingly never-ending menu, without a clue of what you should order? It turns out being overwhelmed with choice can cause us to freeze when it comes to making a decision.

Sheena S. Iyengar and Mark R. Lepper conducted studies on how choice affects purchasing behaviour by displaying two different tasting booths at an upscale grocery store: one offered twenty-four types of jam to try, and the other offered only six flavours. While more people stopped to taste at least one type of jam when they had more options, they were much more likely to actually buy a jar of jam when there were fewer tasting options. 30% of customers who tried a sample from the selection of six different jams ended up buying any jar of jam. In contrast, only 3% of shoppers who tried from the selection of twenty-four jams were compelled to make a purchase!

If you’re thinking, “But my food shop doesn’t sell jam,” maybe this scenario is more relatable. Imagine if you had your menu posted in your window, and people walking by glanced at it but didn’t read it in depth. They might be more compelled to enter your shop if they saw a huge list of meals, but find themselves overwhelmed when it comes time to deciding what they want to order and being unable to settle on just one thing. Similarly, someone might quickly check how long your menu is on your website before booking a table, but could struggle to pick a dish once they’re actually seated in your restaurant.

Too Many Menu Choices

If you don’t know what you want, too much choice can be a bad thing.

Still not convinced? Neither were the researchers, so they conducted a second study among university students. The students were told they could complete an essay assignment for extra credit; not writing the essay would not affect their grade. Some students were then given six discussion questions to choose from as their essay topic and others were given thirty questions. The group with fewer question options was more likely to complete the extra credit work and the quality of the work was generally better than those who had more essay topic options.

As human beings, we’re excited by the idea of choices, and having more items to choose from is appealing. However, we quickly lose motivation when it comes to narrowing down those choices to just one selection. When there are so many other options we could have picked, it becomes easy for us to doubt whether we made the best choice.

Sheena S. Iyengar, Rachel E. Wells, and Barry Schwartz explored this idea in more depth by studying university students applying for their first post-graduation jobs. They sorted the students into two groups: maximizers, who sought to find a job that they considered the best, and satisficers, who were only looking for a job that met a certain minimum criteria. The maximizers worked harder in their job searches, experienced more stress, and ended up with higher paying jobs. But the satisficers, happy that they had simply found jobs meeting their expectations, were much more satisfied with their work life than the maximizers.

The maximizers in this study ended up less happy even though they were doing the best on paper, presumably because they could never be sure that what they were doing was actually the best. The same can apply to your restaurant. If one of your guests orders a plate of noodles and looks over at the next table to see a much more appealing falafel, they may start to doubt that they even picked the best cuisine. By limiting your offerings, your customers don’t have to worry about picking what they think is the absolute best – they might even be able to come back often enough to eat their way through your entire menu.

How much should I limit my offering?

If you’re still in the process of creating your menu, stop and take a careful look at what you’ve already planned. Is there some consistency between the items on your list? If you run a coffee shop, for example, you might be able to serve both sweet baked goods and sandwiches, but adding pizza into the mix may be confusing to your customers.

Too Many Menu Choices

If you’re worried your selection might already be too broad, try observing your customers’ habits. Do many of them spend a long time staring at your menu, trying to decide what to order? Anyone can occasionally have trouble making simple decisions, but if you see this happening often, it may be a sign that you have too many products.

When cutting back on your offering, examine other ways that changing your menu can help optimize your business. Consider eliminating items that are so unique that they require a variety of ingredients that aren’t found in any of your most popular products, so that you can reduce your inventory costs at the same time.

And, when in doubt, just ask! Your guests know more about what they want than you do. Set up a contest on social media that encourages customers to voice their opinion for a chance to win a prize, or hand out survey cards with your meals. While you may receive a wide variety of answers, keep in mind you can’t make everyone happy – but at least you’ll find out what your speciality is.

Check out: Going Organic: Why You Should Serve Healthier Meals and How To Do It and Main Differences Between Coffee Beans, Their Varieties And Cultivars Every Coffee Shop Owner Needs To Know