Menu Innovations | October 2011 | By John Morell

How to Name a Winning Menu Item

Naming dishes offers operators a chance to distinguish their concept from competitors from the beginning.

Enter a Souplantation in New Mexico and you might be enticed to try a bowl of Posole Soup, a Southwestern concoction made with pork, chilies, and tomatoes. “It’s one of my absolute favorites, I always get it,” says Souplantation CEO Michael Mack.

However, despite being one of the CEO’s preferred dishes, you won’t find Posole Soup at any of the company’s 120 other locations around the U.S. because the word posole doesn’t market well outside of the Southwest.

“It’s a regional dish and I think it would do very well in other parts of the country, but customers who aren’t familiar with the word tend not to want to experiment,” Mack says. “And we like to keep our menu-item names uniform throughout our restaurants, so right now you can just find it in New Mexico.”

That’s just one of the challenges faced by quick-serve and fast-casual businesses today: how to come up with menu names that resonate with consumers.

“It’s really something that’s both art and science,” says Linda Duke, principal of Duke Marketing, a restaurant consultancy based in San Raphael, California. “It’s especially critical for [the quick-service] segment of restaurants, since customers come in or drive up and check out a menuboard for a few seconds. You don’t have time to sell them with the fancy traditional menu you would have with a sit-down restaurant.”

Another popular dish in Souplantation’s line is Albondigas Soup, a Mexican soup made with meatballs that does very well at all of the chain’s locations. “It seems to have crossed that barrier where it’s popular with our wide range of customers, whereas Posole Soup seems to be stuck as a regional dish,” Mack says.

Menu experts say a successful item name should tell a story about the dish.

“It’s not easy to do in a small space on a menuboard, but somehow you’ve got to differentiate your product from that of your competitors,” says Gregg Rapp, a restaurant consultant based in Palm Springs, California. “Your burger, your pizza, your salad—how much different are they really from the place down the block? At an upscale restaurant, they’ll do that with a salmon dish by personalizing it with a name or place so you get a feel that it’s different from the salmon at Costco.”

Adding a place name is a common strategy to give an item a sense of what customers can expect. “Using California to describe something usually implies that it’s fresh and healthy, both terms that are desirable when you’re naming menu items,” says Joseph Brady, president of the Foodservice Research Institute.

Brady’s organization recently conducted a study of menu names that showed the use of California as an adjective describing something on a menu increased more than 4 percent between 2005 and 2010 (Burger King, in fact, launched a California Whopper in August).

“It’s a lifestyle word, an aspirational word,” Brady says. “It catches the eye and gives you a sense that what you’re ordering will be good and healthy.”

But using place names isn’t always a great idea, says Corey T. Nyman of the Nyman Group, a restaurant consultancy based in Las Vegas. “It all depends on the place and the image it represents,” he says.

“Another factor is where the item is sold. If I’m on the East Coast and I see a Hawaiian Chicken Sandwich on a menu, I might immediately think of pineapple. However, people on the West Coast who may be more familiar with Hawaiian foods and flavors may think about the vacation they’re taking to Hawaii next week. So where your customers are from is going to play a part in the naming.”

Nyman points to his experience with Maryland crab cakes on the East Coast. “In the east, everyone knows how a good Maryland crab cake is supposed to taste, and customers have an expectation. However, not as many people in the West have that expectation with Maryland crab cakes. If the item was described as Alaskan crab cakes, you may see more of an interest.”

“Using California to describe something usually implies that it’s fresh and healthy.”

Of course, Nyman says, there are some regional words that will always carry a national connotation. “A Western burger makes you think about barbecues, smoky flavors,” he says. “No matter where you’re from, you know what you’re getting when you order one.”

Being creative with naming can help set a menu apart from its competition.

At Souplantation, there are salads that aren’t even called salads. What used to be known to customers as Chinese Chicken Salad, for example, is now Wonton Chicken Happiness. And what might otherwise be the unappetizing-sounding Broccoli Salad is called Joan’s Broccoli Madness.

“Using happiness and madness instead of salad adds pizzazz to the product’s image,” Mack says. “Customers want something a little different and exciting, and the name helps achieve that goal.”

At Rock Wood-Fired Pizza, a 12-unit chain based in Washington state, menu naming is part of the overall restaurant concept. “Everything is based on classic rock ’n roll, so we get pretty creative with our naming,” says Don Bellis, president and cofounder. “Pizzas feature the name of a classic rock song, such as Bat Out of Hell, Crazy Train, and My Generation.”

Guests can also order a Hurts So Good burger or six mini calzone pizzas called Day Trippers.

“You can get a Meat Lovers pizza just about anywhere, but here you get a Meaty, Beaty, Big, and Bouncy, which is also a tribute to a classic song by The Who,” Bellis says. “It’s a kind of nuance that our customers appreciate.”

However, creativity can have some limits, Duke says. She says customers should never be confused or turned off by a name on the menuboard. “Sometimes operators are too cute with their naming and instead of keeping it simple, they go for something else,” she says.

Duke says she recently saw a yogurt outlet that featured a flavor called Tiger’s Blood. The term, which became famous earlier this year after it was used by actor Charlie Sheen, is the name of a strawberry and coconut syrup often used in snow cones. Although the term was topical because of Sheen, Duke says it strikes out as a long-term menu name.

“It may be appetizing, but I know many people wouldn’t be willing to try it because of the name,” she says.

Naming can be tricky when trying to appeal beyond a traditional clientele. The Veggie Grill, which has seven units in the Los Angeles area, has, as its name suggests, a vegetarian menu. But the outlet tries to expand beyond vegetarian customers with creative and descriptive menu names.

“Our customers are sophisticated and many are not vegetarians, they’re simply here with friends,” says CEO Greg Dollarhyde. “Everything on our menu sounds good to anyone, whether they’re vegetarian or not.”

Many Veggie Grill items sound as appealing as the “real thing,” Dollarhyde says. The Thai Chickin’ Salad with vegetarian “chicken” and the V-Burger aren’t meant to deceive the meat eater into thinking they’re eating something else but to get them to expand their tastes.

“You may not leave our restaurant and become a vegetarian, but we think you’ll like us enough to come back,” Dollarhyde says.

Some terms have been used too frequently by restaurants to mean anything to consumers, the experts say. For Nyman, fresh is a term that comes to mind as being overused. “But I don’t know that there’s a way around it,” he says. “You need to point it out, and it still has an impact.”

As for terms that should be avoided, Nyman suggests things like perfect and golden brown because they are subjective terms. “What’s perfect and golden brown to me may not be the same to you,” he says.

Other impact words for menu items describe how a food item is prepared, particularly if it implies that the item has been made with care. “When you say that ice cream has been hand scooped, what does that really mean?” Nyman says. “The image is that the employee has taken up a scoop of ice cream and put it in a bowl or cone, but isn’t that how ice cream is usually served?”

Duke says that with information becoming more readily available, international terms will become more prominent in future quick-serve menu names.

“A tahini sesame salad will be as common as the Caesar,” she says. “I believe we’ll be less influenced by regions since our tastes will become similar.”

“There’s a continuing influence of Hispanic food and culture in the U.S. that is boosting our menus, and it’s making naming fun,” Mack says. “I see Cuban and South American cuisine making inroads, which will help create some great menus.”