We’ve recently been working with a restaurant client on their menus. It led us to go back to basics, do some research and rethink what a menu is.

At the simplest level, a menu is simply there to tell customers what there is to eat and what it costs. In smarter establishments it’s also often a reflection of chef’s ego. Increasingly, though, the menu is written in a way to help you part with as much money as possible. There’s nothing especially sinister about that. It’s the restuarant’s purpose after all. Sometimes, however, it’s nice to know exactly how you are being manipulated.

Menu Tricks

It’s likely that you’ll already be familiar with some of the tricks used by restaurants, especially the larger chain ones. Here are a few old faithfuls:

The disappearing ‘£’ signs.

Burger and Fries 10.5
sells better than          Burger and Fries £10.50

The rise of ‘local’. Objectively, there’s usually no reason why anything produced locally is better than anything not. But the word is a strong trigger to purchase. Studies show that tacking a rustic name to any old tat will increase sales. If a restaurant offers MadeUp Farm Lamb Burgers it sounds agreeably rustic. For all we know, MadeUp farm is a dreadful place.

Chain restaurants are also fond of tacking known brands onto generic dish names. Names such as Southern Comfort Pork Ribs add authenticity to the menu. Even if you’re eating something processed on an industrial estate somewhere.

Fewer and fewer restaurants, thankfully, are using words such ‘fresh’, ‘succulent’ or even ‘delicious’. Quite right too, we can be the judge of that, thanks.

When healthy is a bad thing…

Oddly, studies show that words such as ’healthy’ also cause sales to drop – they’re associated with lower flavour and gratification. Instead, you’ll find green leaf icons and the like. Some pizza chains have encouraged customers to buy pizzas with the centre taken out and replaced by a few rocket leaves. That’s good work by their marketing people.

Dan Jurafsky, a Stanford linguistics professor, found a link between the use of longer words on a menu and higher prices. ‘Decaffeinated’ not ‘decaf’ and ‘accompaniments’ not ‘sides’, that sort of thing.

‘Ideal’ Menu Size

You like to feel that you’re above such techniques and subliminal tricks. So do I, but the evidence is that we aren’t.

A Bournemouth University study looked into ideal menu sizes (from the customer’s point of view) and came up with some surprisingly rigid results. In fine dining establishments, it seems that the magic numbers are 7-10-7: a choice of seven starters, ten main courses and seven puddings. Many chains have a much greater choice than that and there’s evidence to support the argument that large menus disorientate diners, rendering them more open to manipulation.

Such manipulation, called ‘menu engineering’ by Brian Wansink (a consumer behaviour scientist) is based on the idea that diners are likely to follow a number of triggers and psychological tracks that can be used to influence choice. This is intensely valuable information for chain restaurants.

How People Read a Menu

Here are a few commonly accepted patterns of behaviour amongst diners studying menus.

Anyone who books magazine advertising for a living will tell you that the eye tends to head to the right hand side of a page. On a large menu, this is where the high mark-up items are. Better value dishes are often to be found bottom left on a menu, something of a dead space on a menu.

Rather than methodically reading a large menu, from left to right, people tend to let their eyes flicker across a menu in a ‘Z’ shape movement. For that reason, there’s a sweet spot in the centre of a menu layout that is another home for high mark-up items. Wansink also points out that the eye can easily be distracted by pictures, marked up boxes and highlighting. If a menu item is in a box on a menu, the restaurant is keen that you order it.  It’s common practice at Pizza Express etc, etc.

Research shows that customers tend not to order the highest priced item – or the cheapest item on a menu. Knowing that, savvy restaurants tend to put high markup items second at either end of the extremes.

Even if the menu is not a long one, studies indicate that people order from the first few items of a list. So that’s where the high mark up items go.

More Common Menu

Unusual, but easy-to-pronounce foreign language terms can be used to start a conversation with your server and create opportunities for upselling.

William Poundstone, who writes on the psychology of pricing, uses a concept called ‘anchor pricing’. Essentially, if you’ve ever wondered who on earth pays £29.50 (plus sides) for a fillet steak at The Ivy, the answer is, probably, relatively few people. However, putting that price up does have the effect of making Sirloin at £23.50 seem very reasonable.

More and more menus now jumble up fonts and even columns in order to prevent easy comparison of prices. This serves to help hide away the cheaper items.

As for food, so for wine. It’s usual practice for the highest markup – worst value – wines to appear second and third on a list. This is a response to the syndrome where panicked wine buyers opt for these. That way they a) don’t spend too much and b) aren’t embarrassed to be seen to be buying the cheapest. Evan Davis mentioned this on a Radio 4 recently. He was interviewing a couple of chain restaurateurs. There was a squawk of protest as if he had given away a State secret.

Using Menu Insights

Is there a practical application of all this? Well, take your time over a menu is probably the best advice.  Maybe get used to spending more on wine than the entry level offerings. That’s where the best value is. Be aware of the idea of ‘dead’ areas on menus. And remember that only someone with more money than sense ever eats fillet steak in a restaurant.