Stella has a really nice sub sandwich franchise in a strip mall in a medium-sized city. There’s a lot of parking and foot traffic. She serves hot and cold subs, chips, drinks, and cookies. The subs are great.

One day, she opens her company e-mail to find a note addressed to all the franchisees from the company president. The e-mail announces the addition of pizza to the menu, using all kinds of marketing speak to explain why it is a good idea. It will mean new equipment, ingredients, training, marketing expenses, and a host of other additions. Stella thinks to herself, “No one is going to come to a sub shop for a pizza,” and she is probably right.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why not get more business from our current customers rather than entering a whole new area that we have little or no experience in? To quote a line from the movie “The Birdcage”: “Don’t add, just subtract.”

There are a lot of reasons to add new products to our menus. The obvious explanation for this kind of menu addition is profit. An extremely profitable item that’s easy to add is a huge temptation. Usually it grows from the existing menu, using many of the same ingredients and procedures—like moving from a regular hamburger to the Big Mac. That one solved many problems.

Sometimes companies are aiming to capture a new demographic by adding an ethnic item or by adding a gourmet item to a blue-collar menu. Theoretically, you add a whole new business. Following food fads helps with that, too. Maybe something is really trendy and you can add it quickly and take it out when it goes away. Something like the McRib falls into this category: Wildly popular and cultish, it comes and goes and sells like crazy.

Another explanation for menu addition is that customers increasingly have to have healthy as well as huge and greasy. Now, I’m not sure what healthy means anymore. It used to mean lettuce instead of a bun. But, as McDonald’s says, “Nothing on the menu is unhealthy.”

Sometimes quick serves find a new use for existing food or equipment. Take your leftover hamburger meat and make chili. Use buns that are about to expire and turn them into toast. Sometimes they do it because everyone else has it. This is probably one of the most popular reasons to add to the menu today. If everyone is selling anteater snout in a hot dog bun, you better do it, too—even though you primarily serve Lapland frozen cuisine.

These are reasons to add new products. Many of them are reasonable and have been used in board rooms countless times. But what makes you think you can add an item and automatically be successful? Many companies have made this mistake. They took a solid core menu and strayed way off the path, confusing the dickens out of the customer. I love to sit in a quick-serve restaurant with a menu that fills a wall and watch a customer try to decipher it while the crew person repeats that age-old phrase, “May I help you?” “Yeah, where’s my favorite sandwich on this thing?” If your menuboard needs two walls, it’s too big.

Why should we be so selective with new products, what’s the advantage? Simplicity! Keep it simple for the customer and the crew. I have enough complications in my life. My restaurant experience should be easy. Give me a No. 2 with a Coke and hold the mayo. The crew knows how to do that. It’s OK to throw in a special once in a while, like the McRib or Arby Q. It’s kind of like the specials in white tablecloth restaurants: You have a tendency to order it rather than the regular menu.

A smaller menu also leads to savings on labor, paper, equipment, and food and marketing costs. Five kinds of lettuce cost money, not counting the three sizes of spatulas. There’s also the fact that, with an expanded menu, you might be stepping way outside of your food expertise. If you serve the best rutabaga, keep doing that. Don’t add grouper. (Now, you really do need healthy options to combat your competitors. You’re being eaten alive by the low-fat tuna salad next door, not to mention the government is taking away your toys and mandating boiled oak leaves in your kids’ meals.)

Expanded menus really mess up your quality, service, cleanliness, and value. The new item totally disrupts your kitchen, increases service times, adds tons of extra trash, and is too expensive. And sometimes it doesn’t taste good.

The last reason to keep your menu small is the biggie: It is totally out of your brand image. What is beer doing in a kids’ restaurant? It happened one day. You are world-famous for doughnuts and suddenly you are selling conch chowder. Who are you?

Sometimes we believe research way more than our good restaurant instincts. We divide up markets and demographics into neat little pieces and then attempt to specifically satisfy each little piece. McDonald’s used to say that its market was anyone with a working stomach, and it got on with the job. Worked for them.

A recent study on customer satisfaction showed McDonald’s dead last when compared with 12 of its biggest competitors. The company’s reply was that it is constantly improving and it is a top priority.

I believe them, totally. Business shows it. But I wonder if there is so much going on there that it is almost impossible for McDonald’s to satisfy on all levels. If you look at the rankings, the simpler menus tend to be at the top and the more complicated menus at the bottom. Just a thought.

Anyway, be really smart on adding a new product and ask the right questions of your franchisor. New products are not the end-all they used to be.

Happy Trails, a Peaceful Life, and thank your people on Labor Day.

Marketing & Promotions, Menu Innovations, Restaurant Operations, Story, McDonald's