Today’s dining patron is savvier and more food aware than ever before. Your restaurant staff should be too, and that all starts with menu knowledge. In any great restaurant, having well-versed front-room staff is as important as having quality ingredients and a skilled chef.

Why Menu Knowledge Matters

From potentially fatal allergies to food sensitivities to price points and trends, knowing how a dish is prepared and what’s inside it makes all the difference for customers. If your hamburger is expensive, the staff needs to understand why. The menu should be informative, but maybe a customer doesn’t understand why a bison-beef burger is more expensive.

Your staff needs to be able to explain the chef's motivations and why it tastes better. Maybe it’s a $19 burger because it’s topped with a cave-aged cheddar and a house-made maple bacon too. Customers aren’t always opposed to spending more when they understand what they’re getting in return, especially if the server has eaten the dish and shows enthusiasm for it.

However, in a peer-review world where dissatisfaction or frustration translates into a low-star review on sites like Yelp and Google, menu knowledge means educating customers about what sets you apart. If staff can’t answer every question, that’s OK. All they need to do is say “let me ask the chef” and do it. Customers love knowing that their question is worth that effort and time.

Improving Your Team’s Restaurant Knowledge

Whether you're training new staff or rolling out a menu, getting the team up to speed about what's on offer is a never-ending venture for some eateries. From pamphlets explaining ingredient origins to team field trips to producer farms and staff dinners, there are all kinds of ways to get your team jazzed about what the kitchen is plating.

Field trips to a farm can be a great way to build team morale and really show what makes your food special if you focus on farm-to-plate dining. That connection to place becomes even more special for your team, and they can share that with diners. Tasting meals is also a team-building exercise because they can talk about palate experiences and give feedback on dishes, which in turn can help the kitchen staff to tweak and improve new items.

It’s important to remember that food has a story – where ingredients are sourced, who produces them, why they were chosen, how they’re prepared and why it works. The better your servers can share that story with diners, the more emotionally invested diners become in their meal. If they know they're supporting good farms and local producers, that can help create repeat business.

Having an informal menu test for servers can be helpful in seeing their ability to answer diner queries. Questions like, “Are the kitchen’s gluten-free items safe for celiacs?” and “Which dishes are best for vegans and vegetarians, and what’s the difference?” are ideal for this.

Staff need to understand that gluten free may be a trend for some, but it’s a critical health concern for others, and a single crumb of gluten can cause days of pain. Similarly, veganism isn’t always a lifestyle choice either but a necessity for people who can’t digest animal protein. Diners with food sensitivities need to be able to trust your server’s knowledge as well as your kitchen's understanding of food-safe preparation.

Ultimately, engaging your team and ensuring they’re intimately familiar with dishes on the menu by way of sampling all the dishes or by taking field trips may seem like unneeded expenses, but they're a tax write off and an investment in the well-being of your restaurant.