The Ten Dark Secrets of Restaurant Menus
Menus can surprise you…Photo provided by Getty.
The Ten Dark Secrets of Restaurant Menus
A well-designed menu is an unerring weapon for making customers consume the dishes the restaurant is most interested in selling (because they are the most profitable.)
El País: Los 10 secretos oscuros de los menús de los restaurantes
Editorial by Marta Muñoz-Calero published February 28, 2012
Peak hour in a popular restaurant. Commands shoot out of the kitchen as sparks fly inside. “Excuse me, waiter, I would like a Caesar salad with broiled organic chicken breast,” a young man says decisively. “I’d like to try a fresh salad with wild morels and a scent of truffle,” his date says to the maître d’. Was that what these customers really wanted to order, or did the cunningly designed menu decide for them? Many restaurant menus hide little marketing secrets that toy with our psychology to “help us” decide (to do what would be best for the business, obviously).
All the effort that went into publicity costs little if it brings customers to the doors of the restaurant, and once they are inside, the objective is to make them spend as much money as possible. As you may have imagined, inside the restaurant’s doors the weapon of choice is called the menu.
There is a science to the design of restaurant menus: the size, the kind of paper, the number of pages, the font, the hierarchy of dishes…The Culinary Institute of America teaches a class entirely devoted to Menu Engineering, where one learns to apply known techniques from disciplines like marketing and culinary technology
These engineers’ job is simple: to make the dish that is most profitable for the restaurant owner the one that customers order. Our job is to help you disarm the most traitorous menus.
These are the 10 dangers we should take into account when we order at a restaurant. Don’t trust:
1. Menus that don’t have prices lined up in columns. When the cost of a dish is camoflauged by its proximity to a succulent description, it keeps you from doing a quick calculation of how much the bill will cost.
2. Dishes that appear on the top right corner of the menu. People tend to look at this part of the menu first, so that’s where you’ll always see what the restaurant is interested in selling, be it for profitability or price. If it’s a book-style menu, take care of the dishes situated in the center and top sections of the left-hand page.
3. The first and last spots on the suggestion column. We sometimes settle on these dishes and forget about the choices in between.
4. The signs that extol a dish as a house special, new, homemade, etc. They usually adorn dishes that make fat profits for the business owner.
5. Colorful descriptions filled with seductive words like “organic”, “roasted in a wood fired oven”, “fresh off the market” (or fish market), “crunchy”, or “marinated”. These words excite the appetite and call up images of dishes that in turn make us salivate and ask our bellies to make room. Words like “fried”, “boiled”, and “battered” do the opposite. Who wouldn’t order a sandwich of “red mullet fresh from the market with truffle and organic leek flan”? (From the menu of Can Fabes.)
6. Sophisticated, succulent, and expensive dishes placed next to the simplest ones. When we compare them, we impulsively choose the more seductive dish without stopping to look at the price.
7. Boxed and outlined areas contain the dishes that are the most lucrative for the establishment. You should put even less trust in the ones on the right side of the box because our vision automatically goes there.
8. A dish with a scandalous price placed just before or after one with an inflated price relative to the offering For example: placing “quail eggs, smoked salmon, and beluga caviar” for €48.60 just above “truffled egg yolk with cream of artichoke, spinach, and foie” for no less than €25.92. When you compare prices, you feel that the egg with foie is a bargain when the given price is actually sufficient for an entrée of eggs even with foie. (From the menu of Restaurante Zalacaín.)
9. Recommendation stickers on the main menu. Though this isn’t always the case, these could be things the chef wants to get rid of because they haven’t sold on previous occasions.
10. The back cover or back page is the junkyard of dishes. This is the dumping ground for the least ordered dishes and most simple food and drinks, like soft drinks and coffees. It’s like when happens in supermarkets when milk and eggs (primary necessities) are placed in the back of the store to encourage impulse buys of less needed and more expensive products on the way there.
A good description of dishes and a good menu design can increase a client’s bill by 20-30%, according to various websites dedicated to catering marketing. These psychological tools are legal, but they are still cunning and lead us to buy the food the owners want us to eat.
One last word to the wise is to always ask for dishes with ingredients that are seasonal and local (when possible). You don’t have to give in to the pressure of the waiter’s recommendation. Finally, you should never send food back in a rude way. It’s possible that when the dish returns to your table, it’ll hide a “surprise ingredient” inside.
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