When you set up an online ordering system for your restaurant, either through a third-party app or via a native restaurant POS integration, building your online ordering menu isn’t as simple as copying over your in-house menu items. Online customers don’t have the luxury of asking a server for the specials or seeing what the next table over has ordered. Plus, other restaurants are just a click away, so if they don’t see something they like right away you’re at greater risk of losing their business. Scroll down for a video walkthrough of Online Ordering best practices and how the Upserve Online Ordering platform works. 

7 Ways to Optimize Your Restaurant’s Online Ordering Menu

1. Edit Down Your Menu Items

Just because something is a big hit in your restaurant, doesn’t mean it should go on your online ordering menu. Ideally, you’ll want to put about 20 items with higher margins on your online ordering menu, but you also want to ensure that the items you are selling to-go will hold up their integrity when they arrive at their destination.

A good example of this is a dish like nachos. They are notoriously poor for traveling when they’re plated the same way you would in-house. The chips get soggy, the cheese starts to coagulate, and the guacamole turns brown. If nachos aren’t a high-margin item or main staple of your restaurant, you might want to consider leaving them off your online ordering menu.

However, if you own a Mexican restaurant or a sports bar where your guests will be seeking out nachos and you want to include them, tweak the recipe and plating to accommodate delivery. Package the chips separately, keep the hot toppings like beans away from cold items like tomatoes and lettuce, and serve it with a side of cheese sauce instead of melting shredded cheese on top of the chips. Keep in mind that the extra packaging will lower your margins, so make sure you cost out the recipe with that additional packaging included to make sure it’s worthwhile.

2. Include High-Quality Photos

“Imagine ordering from Amazon with no pictures,” says Kenn Pluard, owner of Kenji’s Ramen & Grill in Vancouver, Washington, who saw a 10% increase in sales after implementing online ordering with Upserve. “Having the actual photo will speak wonders and give the customer an idea of the food quality.” Pluard notes that even showcasing canned beverages, with the logos visible and recognizable, can help drive sales. “Having a presentable photo of the actual food can give the customer an idea of the value and image of the restaurant,” he adds.

The Hourly Seafood Tower. PC: Joel Benjamin

If you can’t hire a professional photographer to take photos of your online ordering menu items, here are a few tips on taking high-quality photos yourself:

  • Lighting is key. 

For food, indirect natural lighting is best. Take photos of your dishes near a window or out on your patio. If you’re shooting outdoors, be conscious of the time of day – the bright, direct noontime sun will cause photos to look blown out and create harsh shadows. Early morning or late afternoon/evening is best.

  • Compose the shot. 

When used appropriately, props can help give customers an accurate picture of what they should expect. “One thing customers hate is to see a big picture of a dish only to find that, in real life, it’s much smaller. When appropriate, add little things that help show the relative size of the dish: salt and pepper shakers, a side of sauce, chopsticks, a fork, etcetera,” says photographer William Haynes.

  • Make dishes look appetizing. 

“We take the images that really show what’s in the item,” says CEO and chairman of I Heart Mac and Cheese, Stephen Giordanella. “For example, instead of showing a grilled cheese, we open up the grilled cheese, show some of what’s inside falling out, and get shots of cheese being poured on top of it. Showing the image as a final product is beautiful, but showing the image as it’s being created is both creative and more interesting to see.”

How much money could you be saving by switching from third-party online ordering apps to a native system? Find out with our free Online Ordering Calculator.

3. Be Clear With Menu Item Names and Descriptions

While you’ll use typical Search Engine Optimization (SEO) best practices in order to drive customers to your restaurant online ordering page, you’ll want to use a different type of SEO once customers have landed on your online ordering page.

Say a guest is on GrubHub searching for “cheeseburgers.” You might have the best burgers in town, but if your cheeseburger is labeled “Aunt Betty’s Famous Burger,” your menu item will be pushed to the bottom of the search below all the items just labeled “cheeseburger,” or worse, your item might not even appear at all, costing you business. 

We all love a fun menu item name, but they’re best left on your in-house menu. If “Aunt Betty’s” burger is something your regular customers will be looking for, put it in the item description so they can make the connection. And speaking of item descriptions, make sure your high-quality photos are paired up with a detailed description of the menu item to give customers the full picture of what they’re ordering.

“What we’ve learned is that a big component of success on third-party platforms is SEO within the platforms, where the consumer seems to exist,” said Bill Stavrou of Ghost Kitchen concept machine Foodhaul. “The consumer goes to those platforms and searches for a cuisine, and we’re finding ways to strategically pay for placement or find new ways that get us to the top of that list.” 

4. Highlight Popular Items

Some third-party apps, as well as Upserve Online Ordering, will highlight your most-ordered items at the top of your menu page. This is helpful for guests who may want to order from your restaurant but aren’t sure what to get, as it makes it easier for them to decide. With a native online ordering system, you have a bit more control over the layout of your menu. Adding a “most popular” category to the top of your menu with your highest-margin dishes will help drive more sales of those items.

5. Make it Simple for Guests to Customize

Make customization simple for your guests and your kitchen staff by including all possible substitutions, additions, sides, and allergy restrictions in each menu item. Your servers have the greatest knowledge of what most people ask for in terms of customization, so make sure to get their input when building your online ordering menu.

grant river brewery olo menu
Grand River Brewery – Jackson, MI

6. Include Curbside Pickup Instructions and Information

With the increasing demand for no-contact or curbside pickup, make sure guests know the pickup procedures (ie. masks required, designated pickup spots) and that you have all the information you need from them. Grand River Brewery in Jackson, MI offers curbside pickup brought out to the car, so they added a zero-dollar menu item for guests to indicate their car’s make, model, and color so servers can easily spot them when they pull up.

Grand River Brewery – Jackson, MI

7. Drive Business with Promo Codes

There are a number of creative ways to bring guests into your restaurant – specials, live entertainment, service, to name a few – but one of the biggest drivers of online orders is a promo code. It can make or break a guest’s decision on whether to order from your restaurant or a competitor, especially if they are on the fence. Click here to read more about the different types of online ordering promo codes and when the best times to use them are.

Tip: Help more people easily find your online ordering page by including it in your Google My Business listing.

How Bywater Restaurant Optimizes their Online Ordering Menu with Upserve Insights

When setting up their first online ordering menu, Katie O’Donnell, co-owner of Bywater in Warren, RI, looked at her Upserve Magic Quadrant. “We went into Upserve HQ to pull our best sellers that we knew people would come back for,” she noted. “We set up our online menu so we could keep labor costs low, streamline our menu, and sell the crap out of everything to keep revenue high and costs down.”

As the pandemic dragged on, Katie kept an eye on her Pmix to make sure they were constantly iterating on their menu to improve revenues. She noticed that guests preferred to buy cocktail mixers at a lower price point vs. to-go cocktails which had a smaller revenue margin. “People have vodka in their house,” she said with a laugh. “They just want a creative mixer! So even though we can sell the whole cocktail, it made more sense financially to just sell the mixer. The profit margin is so different when you have to think about packaging.”

She’s also constantly testing the order and organization of her Upserve Online Ordering menu. Bywater originally had their menu set up the way you would for dine-in: Food, followed by drinks, followed by add-ons. But her hungry guests weren’t making it all the way down the menu past the food. So she ran some tests. Now, when guests access her Online Ordering menu, they are greeted by pantry items and books (setting the tone to open their mind for other purchases besides food). 

Next, you reach cocktails. “We realized we had to have three menu items there to make it look visually interesting. Our food menu doesn’t have photos but for drinks and dessert we NEEDED a visual component.” Bywater now has a part-time staff member just to take photos of menu items and assist with social media. Upserve recently found that customers with photos on their online ordering menus see on average, 60% higher revenues.

The next item on the menu is wine, and offerings there have also shifted based on data and analysis. They found that their lower-cost bottled wines, that could be easily acquired from the neighborhood wine store, were not as big of a draw as potentially higher-priced, more exclusive wines that they only have access to as restaurant owners. “We realized we could bring in cooler wine at a 100% markup and still move it at a pretty brisk pace.”

After scrolling through all that temptation, guests arrive at the food. “We run the Pmix in Upserve every night to see what’s selling and look at the graphs,” Katie said. “We refine the graph to just show the top five things and break it down, so I’m using the Upserve Menu Quadrant more than I ever used to.” 

Katie has found that they need to be more nimble because take out is different than dine-in in terms of attention span. “You get more direct feedback with to-go, especially with a pared down menu,” she said. “If you don’t have the thing they want, you won’t make the sale. They’ll click over to a different restaurant. You lose the sale in a direct way vs. dine-in, where they’re already seated at a table and they’ll just settle for something else on the menu.”

Katie and her staff are using Upserve analytics to take a hard look at who their regulars are, who the highest spenders are, and how to keep both engaged through a mix of hard data and anecdotal feedback. One insight she has uncovered is that they may be switching up their menu too quickly. “We keep underestimating how popular things will be,” she said. “Last week we took our fish and chips off the menu and we had a 40% drop in sales and non-stop calls about it. People want what they want! So we brought it back and sales were back up. If we were open for dine-in we’d never run a single menu item for this long.” 

No restaurant owner would choose to be in this predicament, but focusing purely on Online Ordering has shifted how Katie plans to run dine-in at Bywater going forward. “We’re so focused on changing it up, that we’ve overlooked the long-term audience for certain dishes or specials,” she said. “Now, only when sales start to drop organically do we take things off the menu.”

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Stephanie is a Providence, RI native and eight-year food industry veteran. As Upserve's Content Marketing Coordinator she creates materials that help restaurateurs, managers, and service professionals succeed. When she's not writing, Stephanie is most likely traveling, cooking, or trying new restaurants.