Restaurant Series – Planning a Menu

A menu will make or break a restaurant. After all, it’s all about the food – the appearance, the taste, the quality, and the variety. These factors are the basis of your menu and your pricing. I thought I’d take you down the road of my thought process when putting a menu together. I think the theme for menu planning is a balance. There has to be a balance with a lot of key factors.

Too much on the menu gets overwhelming, too little on the menu feels restrained. You don’t want to buy too many different ingredients, you don’t want things to go to waste and take up space in your kitchen. Here comes that theme of balance. The key here is to be strategic. It’s about that balance between what your restaurant can handle and what the customer can absorb.

So, let’s talk about the operations side of menu planning. First you want to think about how your restaurant is going to be set up – quick service (almost like fast food), modified quick service (you order at the counter and they serve you food), or sit down?

My personal opinion is the quicker the service style, the smaller your menu should be. The last thing you want is people standing and staring at the menu FOREVER when you’re trying to keep the line moving. Think simple. Bigger menus and variety is great for sit down service. It creates more interaction and a personalized service from your servers.

Secondly, you want to think about how much labor is going to go into your dishes. Labor is one of the biggest expenses for any business. Try to think of ways to utilize less labor and ingredients to complete your dishes. This will be a big factor when you get to the pricing. If it takes 3 individuals vs 1 to complete a dish it makes it more expensive.

Lastly, on the operations side let’s talk about pricing. Now I can do a whole series on pricing strategies, but today I’ll just talk about pricing when it comes to menu planning. My biggest piece of advice when it comes to pricing is – don’t just look at your competition and copy or charge $1 less. This will not work! It’s extremely important you do your homework on your costs. When it comes to menu pricing, try to get your costs to fall between 30%-35% and you should be good. If you can get more, even better! I’d say after you do your pricing calculations, it would be safe to say that you can look at your competition and price it competitively. After all, you don’t want to be charging $4 for a sandwich if the competition is selling
it for $8!

Now that we’re done with considering operations, let’s talk about your dishes. Question #1: What is your signature product or signature dish? This is extremely important. What do you want to be known for? What is going to be your specialty? When we first started Ninong’s we got caught up in the let’s serve everyone game. Big mistake. What we should have done was ask the questions above so we could revolve our marketing around it. Lesson learned.

Next! Once you have your signature dish, revolve your menu around that signature product. Create dishes that are a good pairing, heighten that product with good supporting items! For example, our signature product is our Ube Pancakes. Because that is a sweet breakfast item we serve a lot of savory dishes to accompany the pancakes. We also serve “breakfast” dishes through the day instead of just in the morning.

Lastly, think not just about what people would want to eat but what you would be proud to serve! The last thing you want is to have a dish on the menu that you hate to cook. Trust me, I’ve been there lol! Create dishes that represent you and help you tell your story. Remember, owning a restaurant is extremely personal. Your passion and drive will shine through the food. It’s your way to share a piece of your journey with the public!


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Restaurant Series – POS Systems

Brace yourselves for a lot of information! I guess I have a lot to share about this topic haha!

There are tons of POS systems that are geared toward the restaurant and retail industries. For just the restaurant industry alone I can name 5 different choices off the top of my head. POS stands for “Point of Sale” system, basically your cash register/cash handling system. There are simple systems and more complex systems, it all depends on the type of tracking, security, and features you’re looking for. I’m going to be sharing with you what we personally use at Ninong’s and why we use it.

TBH, it all depends on your preference. Every POS system has its pros and cons, and in all honesty, I don’t think there is a “perfect” system out there. Because each restaurant is so different and has specific needs it’s really hard to find something that hits every need to the T.

  • Some systems have monthly maintenance or extra fees
  • Some charge higher credit card fees than the average competitor
  • Some systems don’t include credit card services so you need to get another merchant aside from your cash register system
Photo Courtesy of Square

For Ninong’s we use Square. Though it’s not absolute perfect system (none of them are) let me tell you the main reasons why we’ve been using them for almost 5 years.

  1. When we first opened we used to use a merchant service that the previous tenants of our location used, it was grandfathered in when we bought their business. When I started working at Ninong’s full time I was trying to make sense of the credit card transaction reports, the fees they would take out, the deposits they would put into our account, etc. and couldn’t figure it out. The merchant would deposit money into our account and then take money out so I never knew how much we actually had that was usable income. It drove me crazy! I called their customer service to ask them to explain to me the process so I can track our income and keep track with our bookkeeping. They couldn’t even explain it to me or give me a straight answer! This was a no no for me.
  2. I’m not gonna lie, Square’s credit card fees are steep. BUT it has a lot of pros that still made it worth the fees for us.  It was extremely important to me that I knew how much we had in our bank account. I know, it seems like a really basic request right?! I didn’t want any surprise withdrawals. Square did exactly that, they would only deposit the net amount. No withdrawals.
  3. Over time I realized that we needed more from Square’s POS system. But lucky enough as we grew, so did Square’s POS system. It was perfect timing.
  4. As we grew in sales, Square would have an annual phone meeting with me and I would have an opportunity to negotiate a lower credit card fee rate with them. Don’t be afraid to ask!
  5. I’ve honestly looked into various different systems just to make sure Square is what is best for our business. And currently, it still is. Some other companies charge a monthly fee to use their POS system, Square doesn’t charge. So if a competitor wants to charge me a monthly fee of $30 a month with lower credit card fees but Square doesn’t charge a monthly fee and I spend $30 or less in credit card fees I’d rather go with Square.
  6. Some POS systems require you to use a merchant service associated with their POS system. I like that Square has a register system so that the credit card reader and the cash register are streamlined, and Square is their own merchant service. I hate having extra machines on the counter, I like a cleaner look.
  7. Some POS systems are confusing and tricky to use. Square system is so easy, our employees pick it up very quickly so little to no training is needed.
  8. Square also doesn’t have any contracts. To start using Square all you need to do is register an account, link your bank account and you’re ready to go! To stop, just stop! 
  9. Square has the Square Capital Program. This is by far one of the most useful features that Square offers. We all know the conventional way of financing – loans, credit cards, etc. Square has changed the way small businesses can borrow and pay back loans. If you need some extra capital to invest in your business, Square can loan you the money. They will charge an interest on the amount you borrow and they will deduct a percentage from your daily sales instead of the normal monthly payments. For example, if our agreed payback amount is 10% of daily sales and I sell $100 one day, they will take $10 from my daily sales and put it toward the loan. If I sell $10,000 that day they will take $1000 of my daily sales and put it toward my loan. For us, it was the most efficient way to pay back a loan since we didn’t “feel” the blow of a large monthly payment. They would even deduct the amount before they deposit the funds into your account and give you a daily report.

For us, Square has been the way to go. For now. I’m not a die hard Square user, if someone else is out there I’m always happy to test it out but Square has been a great service for us. Like I said, every system does have its pros and its cons but I can live with Square’s faults for now. Their pros definitely outweigh their cons!

The new Square Register, photo by Square

My advice to anyone that’s looking into the ideal point of sale system for their business is to do research, take note of the pros and cons of each service, and weigh out the pricing. Don’t let sales people push you over because of sales talk. Take a look at the bottom line and see what you’re willing to spend along with the services you’ll be getting. Some businesses will need something more complex, and some businesses can work off of a calculator. Neither is wrong, just do what is best for your business!


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Restaurant Series – Opening a Restaurant in Los Angeles

My main focus for the last 5 months has been our family restaurant business, Ninong’s. If you’ve been following along on Instagram or Twitter you’ll know that the wheels on this project started turning in March of 2017 when we first saw the space. 10 months later here we are, so close to finishing I can see the light at the end of the tunnel! Seeing as my 2018 word for the year is BUILD I thought I’d share with you one of the business that I have built and plan to continue to build this year – Ninong’s.

The next 2 weeks of posts are going to be focused on opening a restaurant, specifically in LA county. I’m going to share with you what products we use, why we use them, how we plan our menu, tips that I’ve learned along the way, and I’m going to get as detailed as I can without boring the heck out of you guys.

So, I guess I’ll get into it with an introduction to the series. I want to start this off by explaining a few personal observations and opinions.

  1. The restaurant business is HARD. It is, hands down, THE hardest business I’ve ever ventured in. You work long hours, the industry is extremely competitive, and pricing strategy is not straight forward. That’s just the tip of the iceberg people!
  2. The restaurant business is EXCITING. Oh man, I need to tell you about the adrenaline rush you feel when you’re on the cook line or when you get an rush of people! Your 8 hour day feels like 4. It’s so exciting! I live for those moments when you feel your team in sync, the bond of trust flowing, and the orders flying out of the kitchen. There’s nothing like it!
  3. The restaurant business is BRUTAL. It’s safe to say that any customer oriented business is brutal. Everyone is a critic. And for those of us that have a thin skin 🙋🏻‍♀️ UH OH, not good. But specifically in the restaurant business, even more specifically Filipino restaurant business, there is a shift that is happening. There are pros and cons to this shift. The pros are that Filipino food is finally becoming a cuisine that people are interested in trying. Fellow Filipinos aren’t the only ones walking into Filipino establishments, other cultures are and that’s a beautiful thing! But the con to Filipino restaurants is it’s always compared to “mom’s cooking.” And let me just say, “mom’s cooking” can never be replaced with our cooking. I’ll just leave it at that. I think this might be true of other cultural restaurants.
  4. The restaurant business is PERSONAL. I think this is true not just for me (my restaurant happens to be very personal since we are family owned and operated) but for most cooks and chefs. Cooking is a very personal interaction with a customer. Everyone that cooks will cook with passion and heart, it translates into the food. No matter if you are cooking your own original recipe or recreating a recipe there is a lot of TLC that goes into cooking.

Stay tuned for the rest of this restaurant series! Regardless if you’re interested in the same industry or not I hope that you’ll be able to take some key things away to apply to your own businesses. Either that or I hope it’ll give you a glimpse of what it’s like to have to start a huge endeavor like this!


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