Friday, May 14, 2010

Menu Mind Games

Get your diners right where you want them!

What do anchors, bacon, and grandmothers have in common? They're all tactics used to make menus more enticing to diners, of course! The bottom line is the bottom line: You want diners buying food. And you're lucky; before your diners even decide what they're going to order, you're putting an advertisement in their hands– in the form of a menu – pointing them right towards what you want them to order. Or you should be!

Here are 10 tricks of menu psychology that will lead your diners to order what you want them to!

Don't Think in Terms of $$

This is menu psych 101: DO NOT use dollar signs ($$) on your menu. Let's repeat, do not use dollar signs on your menu. It forces diners to focus on the price of the dish rather than on the dishes themselves. Is your menu a list of prices or of meals? We're hoping the latter. Along the same lines, how you price your dish can affect how a diner perceives the quality of the price. For example, at value restaurants such as Applebees or Friendly's, pricing a dish at "9.99" denotes value, but having that same price at a fine dining establishment makes the food sound cheap, and not in a good way. Plus a longer number means more time looking at a number and less on food. In the above example from Rouge Tomate, the restaurant prices dishes in terms of whole dollars.

Columns Kill

One of the best ways to compare numbers is to have them all lined up. So give your diners a break and get them focusing on the food and not the price. Columns force your diners to compare the prices of all your dishes, making them weed out the most expensive rather than focus on the most delicious. However, pricing all your entrees around the same can be a good tactic to prove to your patrons that you are a fairly priced eatery.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

One of the best ways to sell a dish is to have a picture of it. Well, sometimes. If you're dining at T.G.I Friday's, reading a menu that's more like War and Peace than, well, a menu, you're more likely to choose the Cheesy Bacon Cheeseburger, strategically placed in the upper righthand corner and described in the first slot in the menu, than any other dish on the page. Do you really want to read the War and Peace of menus to choose your dish? Or would you rather just go with what looks good? We're guessing the latter. If you're a fine dining restaurant, however, this tactic isn't going to work for you. Could you imagine Le Bec Fin including an image of their coddled duck egg? Probably not. You're instead going to have to focus on your words.

Adjectives, Adjectives, Adjectives

While using simpler copy is certainly a trend, the words you do use must be precise. In a recent New York Times article, Dr Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, found that descriptive labels on menu items increases sales by as much as 27 percent. Phrases like "Coddled Duck Egg" spark interest in diners while "Welfleet Oyster" gives a sense of place in an industry that is now obsessed with knowing where food comes from.

The Anchor and What's Right Next Door

Imagine seeing a $120 entree on a menu. The thought of purchasing that entree might cause you to gag before even getting your meal. Then, as you browse the rest of the menu, $40 an entree seems like a steal! The initial $120 entree is not necessarily being promoted, although some will most likely order it, it's acting as a decoy to make the rest of the menu look like a bargain. Momfuku Noodle Bar recently added caviar as an anchor, as this robustly priced dish is called, to its inexpensive late night fare. In comparison with $10 to $16 entrees, this upwards of $100 side dish seems a bit flashy. But that might be just their point! In this case, the anchor serves not only to make the rest of the menu look like a steal, but it's also that crazy thing that some customer might just order because it's late at night, it's Momofuku, and, hell, why not? (That's a rhetorical question for the rest of us...)


Bracketing is for the same-dish-that-comes-in-two-different-sizes trick. The two sizes prompt the diner to feel a bit worried that the smaller portion might not be enough and reassure them that for less than double the price, they can get twice the amount of food. Deal, right? Well, sort of. If a diner doesn't eat the extra food and doesn't take home a doggy bag, then, both the food and the diner's money are wasted. However, if you're the restaurant, you just made close to double the profit off of that sale, simply by having two sizes.

The Benefit of Boxes

Boxes draw attention to items on a menu. In this case, RN74 draws attention to its small plates that come in just under $10. Considering this lovely, bite-sized price, diners are likely to either order one of these as an afterthought in addition to their entree or three or four of them instead of an entree, all coming in at a greater price than the just an entree.

The Upper Right Hand Corner

Just as with newspapers, the upper right hand corner of a menu is prime real estate. This is the first place a diner's eyes go. Putting something especially enticing there is a good call. In the case above, a slightly larger dish that can be shared (what a deal, right?) has taken hold. You will notice, however, that per person this entree is just a little more expensive; in addition, it doesn't have to cooked to order, so is an easy order to prepare, a slightly better bill for the restaurant, and a deal for the diner.

The Enhancer: Bacon

If the pork loin at RN74 was just a pork loin, chances are diners would glance over it and keep moving to the next item. However, when that pork loin is bacon-wrapped, everything changes. Bacon is still a buzzword for diners — even if we're bored by food flops like bacon ice cream, we are always enticed to see what the tasty, salted pig-part has been paired with this time. In this case, the bacon makes an otherwise boring dish, excites our intrigue and our taste buds — care for some pork wrapped pork? Yes please.

Mothers and Grandmothers

Diners like the names of restaurant family members on a dish on the menu and they especially like the names of mothers and grandmothers — who doesn't like the image of Momma Clara frying your chicken in the back kitchen of Front Porch? Diners like the idea of a secret family recipe being passed down from generation to generation. In Bill Buford's national bestseller Heat, Mario Batali is quoted as saying, "I know it doesn't make sense and I don't understand it. But ... women are better cooks."

Bonus: Throwing It All Out the Door

This menu's a little different you might notice. First, there are no prices. Second, what the heck is "Hay"? And third, the menu is given to diners at the end of the meal, after they've already eaten.

This menu is from Alinea, Grant Achatz's restaurant in Chicago. Achatz is considered one of the leading chefs in molecular gastronomy cuisine; usually when food reaches the tables in Alinea, it has been so manipulated, it no longer resembles in any way the food ingredients that the chef started with. To him, what was the point of a menu at the beginning of the meal? It would just give diners expectations as to what they would be eating and, since the meal is price-fixed, there is no need for diners to choose what they're going to eat. This menu serves as as a souvenir of the meal diners just ate, a poetic, on paper rendition, if you will. So, when your restaurant becomes as successful as Alinea has been and you've turned the culinary world around as much as Grant Achatz has, then you too can go against all rules of menu psychology.