The ham hock on the current menu is the puzzle. The menu categories are: stars, puzzles, plowhorses and dogs. A star is a highly profitable, highly popular item. A puzzle is a highly profitable but not very popular item. A plowhorse is a highly popular but not very profitable item. And a dog is an unprofitable, unpopular item. In other words I'd make money on the hock if people would only order it. Smoked pork osso bucco perhaps?
I try not to keep dogs on the menu and the puzzles are usually items I really love and not just for the low food cost. My peasant background shows through. The stars of our menu are usually pastas. We keep a couple of "safe" ones on the menu, like linguine with lemon-garlic butter. A former sous chef used to joke that it was food for people who didn't like food. Not exactly true, but perhaps for people who aren't very adventurous.
There are allegedly all sorts of ways to engineer the menu. I've read theories about "sweet spots', whether people read the first item on a list or automatically skip over it, that the eye travels in a "Z" pattern, that the eye travels in a backwards "Z", that pictures sell dishes, that there are descriptive words that make people order.
Let me tell you. None of these seem to work for us. Perhaps these strategies do work for chains or places that might as well be chains. After 6 years of owning a restaurant and a good few more writing menus, I still have no idea what entices people to buy certain dishes.
A chef's ego will want to say that the food sells itself. In other words, the dish is so good that just seeing it on the menu will compel all diners to order it. The restaurant owner knows though that the food is the smallest portion of a restaurant's success. That very vague catch-all term "service" is what really makes or breaks a place. We know.
When we opened in mid-winter, we had no idea how many covers we'd be doing. We had a "soft" opening, no big announcements, etc. but we were slammed for the first month or so. We had no plan for service (the GM hadn't taken over the floor yet), we were understaffed and it hurt us for years following that. There are still people in town who won't come to our place because they came 6 years ago and had to wait for their food/service/drink whatever. Mind you, they rarely tell us this, we only find out about it in a roundabout way, but that perception is still out there.
We see this happening with a new Mexican place in town. I feel for them. Not just because I've been there, but because there are already a number of Mexican places in town. If the new folks don't get it together soon, they'll go under. We were lucky. There were not a lot of options with similar offerings when we opened.
At this point I'm confident saying our service is the best in our area, thanks both to the GM for her training and to our intuition in hiring people who care about others. We're also fortunate in being able to train people from the ground up. We rarely hire experienced waiters. Not necessarily because we don't want to, but because there are so many pricier options in town they rarely apply. Little do they know our waiters make good money, because the prices, combined with good, caring service, entice diners to leave a bit more on the table for the waiters.