How to keep menus safe without breaking the bank

Your menu is the most important tool your restaurant has, whether you work in the highest luxury dining or fast food. While it has always been a necessity, sanitization and cleanliness now lead the way for considerations of how to reopen with new menus.

Menu boards, chalk boards, white boards and tablets offer good alternatives to the potential costliness of disposable paper menus. But the tenets of menu engineering are still vitally important, no matter the format your menu takes. Here are a few things to consider:

When the National Restaurant Association released guidelines for operators to follow as they begin the process of reopening, it included this note about menus: “Clean and sanitize reusable menus. If you use paper menus, discard them after each customer use.”

While going with paper menus might be your first instinct, printing enough paper menus for every customer every day can be prohibitively expensive. Let’s run the numbers on creating and printing two-sided full-color menus measuring 11 by 17 inches, at a cost of 20 cents (US) per menu. If you take your yearly gross and divide it by your average check, you can see how many menus you will use a year. A yearly gross of US$2 million divided by a US$20 average check means you serve 100,000 customers. That comes to US$20,000 in menu printing costs.

The whiteboard at Le Vallauris in Palm Springs, California
The whiteboard at Le Vallauris in Palm Springs, California

Gregg Rapp is a consultant and founder of Menu Engineers

This is a rough estimate, and it’s hard to determine sustainability when the volume of business is already so low. We can’t know how long the supply chain will be disrupted, either. Who knows what access to certain ingredients will look like? Menus will need to change constantly. What if you can’t manage multiple print runs over the long haul?

Of course, there’s the non-tech option, like menu boards, chalk boards and white boards. Smaller chalkboards and white boards can be presented to each table by servers for a more intimate approach. The large menu boards can be regularly updated and cleaned, and can stay out of reach of the consumers. This can work in many fast-casual and fine-dining establishments, but you shouldn’t think they are the only places that can utilize them. Le Vallauris, a fine-dining restaurant in Palm Springs, California, utilizes a white board to great effect.

Taking into account the need to sanitize and the physical cost of the menu, tablets are a fantastic, surprisingly affordable option. Current trends tell us tablets now only cost a quarter of what they used to, with many around US$100 per unit. If you consider long-term cost, restaurants usually spend less money over four years on tablets than they would spend on paper, even when buying around 80 tablets for a restaurant. If you buy 80 tablets at US$100, that’s US$8,000. Add in screen protectors at US$15 each for another US$1,200, and assume about US$880 for charging hubs and cables. All in, that’s just over US$10,000 in hardware costs, plus about ongoing costs of US$400 per month for software licensing. Most experts agree that the lifespan of a tablet is about four years, so that upfront hardware cost amortizes closer to US$2,500 per year.

In doing your cost/benefit analysis, however, bear in mind you’ll likely sell more off of a tablet menu, because like a more traditional menu, customers can spend more time perusing and choosing items that you’ve thoughtfully laid out.

The most important thing to remember about tablet menus is to stick with a system in which you can create a real “menu” and not just a list of pictures of food. You want to be able to build your brand.

Many apps are available to create a tablet menu, offering a varying range of customizable templates so you can control your branding, and give you the flexibility to provide expanded menu descriptions that might not be feasible on paper. Most connect directly with your point-of-sale (POS) system and are compatible with most tablet operating systems.

The major advantage of these apps is that updates to menu items can be made immediately and seamlessly, allowing you to adjust dynamically to seasonality, special promotions, such as holiday menus, and ingredient price swings.

Following an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a restaurant in Naples, Florida, found itself in a pickle when menus it had printed with the fixed prices of seafood suddenly couldn’t be used. The accessibility to fish was changing constantly in the aftermath of the oil spill. Switching over to a tablet menu system allowed them to adjust their menu pricing in a way they could not with a printed menu.

This blog was originally published on, a sister publication of HOTELS.