The Hourly Seafood Tower. PC: Joel Benjamin

If only we all had the time on our hands to create a Calamari Index. That’s exactly what Neil Irwin of the New York Times’ Upshot column did this week

Combining data from decades of NY Times restaurant reviews, the folks behind this data-focused column were able to create a system for measuring a food’s rise (and eventual fall) in popularity in the restaurant industry, well in New York City anyway, based on the number of mentions in NY Times dining reviews.

If the time it took those squids to rise from obscurity to mainstream was 16 years (one Standard Calamari Unit), then we can examine how quickly other faddish foods have gone from obscurity to their peak…

It’s a way to measure the trendy new foods chefs are cooking and what diners are looking for on the menu, at least for the moment, and it’s important stuff to know.

Why Calamari & What Does It Mean For Restaurant Menu Design? 

According to Irwin, calamari is a food that has made a storied journey from near obscurity, to trendy menu darling, to overused (and often overcooked) restaurant mainstay.

The article goes on to point out that trendy food items are peaking and disappearing in a faster cycle than they did even ten years ago, making it increasingly important for restaurant operators to understand trends and how to capitalize on them in their menu design.

However, while some items boom and bust in a matter of years, others stick around and become ubiquitous. Goat cheese, for example, which started its rise to popularity in the 1980s, had more mentions in the NY Times in 2010 than it had since it first began to spike.

restaurant menu data

The article is fun, but is the information anything more than an anecdote? You betcha!

Understanding what some of the best restaurants in the country are serving – remember that this data is taken from NY Times reviews which set a fairly high bar – and what diners are looking for on the menu, is valuable information to have when it comes to better business decision making for restaurateurs.

With this insight, restaurant operators can engineer smarter menu designs that appeal to different guests in different ways: those who want to be on the cutting edge of “what’s hot now,” and those who are looking for the old standbys. 

“I Don’t Have Time For Data”: Why Restaurant Analytics Are So Important

We hear that a lot, but the truth is you don’t need to be a full-time data scientist to gain insight into what customers want and which menu items are trending in your own restaurant. Having the right technology in place makes it easy. There are great restaurant analytics tools out there that integrate seamlessly with the systems restaurants already use and offer deeper insight into operations.

Upserve's magic quadrant

For example, as a restaurant operator, you should be able to understand not only which menu items are most commonly ordered, something you might have a good idea about already, but which are best at bringing customers back and at what rate. Upserve’s Magic Quadrant does just that, plotting menu items in an easy to understand grid to reveal “hidden gems” and “greatest hits” alike.

What Are You Doing With Your Menu Data?

Data for data’s sake isn’t worth much… it’s what you do with it.

fried calamari

Most importantly, you’ve got to be able to use the information you get from these powerful new tech tools. Information that can help you make better business decisions about what to cut from your restaurant menu, when to run a certain type of special and which items your servers should be pushing to new customers is essential to running a smarter business.

Trends will come and go and so will tech resources. The ones with lasting power will become essential to the operation of your business and you’ll see them as a comfort, much like a plate of fried calamari.