Federal “Truth-in-Menu” laws require that caterers and other menu planners accurately describe dishes and fairly represent prices and other charges on their menus. Accuracy in menu development involves more than honestly describing an entrée and precisely stating a price. It also means being careful when describing many food attributes, including the preparation style, ingredients, origin, portion sizes, and health benefits. Make sure you can deliver on everything you put on a menu. If you promise an eight-ounce aged sirloin steak, make sure it weighs a half pound before cooking and that it's an aged sirloin, not a fresh rib eye.
The National Restaurant Association has published “A Practical Guide to the Nutrition Labeling Laws,” to assist foodservice operators as they develop menus. This guide outlines everything you need to know about nutrition claims you can make for your menu items.
Here are some specific guidelines for describing menu items.
You cannot use a copyrighted or registered trademark to identify an item in your menu unless you use the specific product in your dish. If you use round, candy-coated chocolate bits in your cookies, you can't describe them as “M&;M Cookies” unless you use genuine M&;M's. If you use a generic product, this is your chance to get creative with names and descriptions; chances are your customers won't miss the brand names.
Means of Preservation
You can't call something “fresh” if it has been previously frozen — ever! This includes everything from shrimp to frozen juices to pies.
Don't say anything you serve for your catering business is “homemade.” It wasn't actually made in your home kitchen. That would be an unlicensed facility! Use words like “home-style” or “traditional” instead.
Points of Origin
The point of origin refers to the original spot where the product was grown or harvested, such as Maine lobsters or Florida stone crabs. Make sure the product labels you use are accurate.
Cover charges, service charges, and mandatory gratuities must all be contained in contract or by letter. They should never be hidden or go unmentioned in negotiations.
Sometimes a product must be substituted at the last minute when the item in the initial agreement is not available, not delivered, or too expensive. Be certain to state the correct products being used, but reserve the right in your contracts and on your menus to substitute similar items in extraordinary circumstances, such as E. coli outbreaks, commodity price increases, or delivery problems. If the item you end up using is less expensive than what a client ordered off of your premium menu, refund the difference.
Often you'll be selling menus and event pricing months in advance. Prices on certain items may increase before you actually order the ingredients and cook and serve the food. Make sure that your prices have enough padding, or margin, to cover an increase in gas usage over the holidays, for example, or a rise in orange juice and milk prices.
Grades of meat and poultry products should refer strictly to USDA-recognized terminology (Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, and Com-mercial) or accepted variants (Grade A, Good, Number One, Fancy, Grade AA, and Extra Standard).
Steaks are often sold and listed on menus by weight. It is acceptable to use the weight of the raw meat before cooking on your menu.
Type of Preparation
Use the proper terms for the cooking methods you are using to prepare a particular food item — for example, baked, broiled, fried, sautéed, smoked, and roasted.
Make sure your terminology accurately reflects the ingredients you're using. Pay particular attention to the following words: winter, spring, summer, fall, harvest, rainbow, prime, choice, USDA grade, extra large, jumbo, fresh, natural, whole, original, and signature.
Verbal and Visual Presentation
Be certain that the descriptions given by the waitstaff or written on the menu, or photographs reproduced on menus or table tents, represent what the customer receives.
It's helpful to include a warning regarding any potentially harmful items on your menu. Customers should be warned about raw foods and common allergens like nuts and gluten.