Mills, president of Focus Marketing, works every day to make sure area restaurants are putting their best food forward in their menu designs, and promoting a more positive image in the process.
Focus Marketing, a menu design company, has been working with clients for just over two years to design and redesign their restaurant menus to help reflect the image the restaurant wishes to promote.
And for Mills, who started the business in June 2001 with only three people, entrepreneurship has always been something that came naturally to her. She says it all began with the ice cream truck she started when she was 10 and was followed by her own quiche business. However, it started to get serious — not to say the ice cream truck wasn’t serious — when she majored in restaurant management at Michigan State University.
“I had worked in restaurants starting when I was 15,” said Mills. “I eventually worked my way into the management side of it. I loved the business but hated the hours.”
Mills then worked her way into food sales at Superior Seafood, until she decided to work for Sysco, where she stayed for nine years and which eventually propelled her to go into business for herself.
While Mills was selling Sysco products on the lakeshore, she ran into several customers who were designing their own menus. Seeing people who would practically put their house on the line to buy a restaurant and then turn around and try to design their own menu just broke her heart, so she decided to look into the field.
As Mills worked her way up through the ranks at Sysco, she eventually made it to director of marketing where she was actually in a position to make menu design happen. And while it didn’t work out as part of Sysco’s offerings, Mills was still determined.
She went to the president of the company and told him that she was leaving to start her own business. And not only that, but she was seeking his blessing to take his top business development manager and graphic designer with her.
She got the nod from the top and the three of them started Focus Marketing.
That was not the last she would see of Sysco, however.
Within six months Focus was working its way through West Michigan and helping independent restaurants to have a good-looking menu at a better price. At about the same time Sysco began to see the value of what Mills was doing and asked her to work with the company on a national level, which would involve traveling to food shows across the country and working with restaurants that far exceeded her West Michigan turf.
Mills accepted the offer and a little regrouping was in order. Now, a national business plan was required, as was a plan for growth at a reasonable rate with the given resources.
“We survived the transition and over the past two years we have grown from three to 18 people, adding many freelancers and food show people along the way,” said Mills. “We have done 60 food shows this year and the work isn’t stopping. All restaurants talk about what they want to sell and the fact that they want to make more money. We can make that happen and that makes the decision for them.”
Just how Mills and Focus make that happen is a fairly scientific process, combined, of course, with a heavy amount of creativity.
Mills said that putting a menu together is really just knowing the restaurant and following a set of design principles. There are certain aspects to keep in mind, she said. For example, designers must be familiar with where a customer looks first on a menu and the path that the customer’s eyes naturally follow. She said it’s also important to make items “pop off a page.”
Pricing options are something else Focus examines. Mills said the company can look at a menu and see how the restaurant can raise prices a little bit here and there or add value to the food, such as adding bacon and tomato to a grilled cheese sandwich, and get more money for it.
All of Focus’ work, Mills said, is done with today’s technology. It is a rare occasion that the designers actually travel to the restaurant, because Mills said it isn’t necessary.
“We use the phone, faxes and e-mail,” she said. “We ask them to help us with the inspiration and to give us a feel for their restaurant. We ask several questions about aspects of the restaurant and then we ask them to take pictures, which sometimes can even be incorporated into the menu.”
The beauty of what Focus does, Mills said, is that it brings value to the restaurant and can change the perception of a place through its menu.
“We ask for a serious, ‘not curious,’ fee of $100. For that we will do the project halfway and that way they can commit after they have seen what we can do,” said Mills. “We almost always hit it the first time.”