You take your seat at the table, open the menu, and scan the contents for yummy goodness.
Approximately 109 seconds later, according to a Gallup poll of menu-reading times, you perform a series of violent gesticulations in the direction of the haughtily inattentive waiter.
You place your order for medium-rare Kobe beef and lean back in your chair, content with having exercised free will at the expense of blowing a hole in your wallet.
What you don’t know is that a menu expert has used a variety of clever tricks to steer you towards the steer.
That’s because you’ve been perusing a sophisticated marketing tool, rather than just a list of food prices.
Some restaurants spend 18 months tweaking their menus based on a science called “menu engineering” – and this can really set the tills ringing. American menu guru Ryan Gromfin, for example, claims to have boosted the sales in one mid-range restaurant by more than NZD $1000 a week just by polishing its menu.
So what, exactly, does this polishing entail?
According to Gromfin and another American menu guru, Gregg Rapp, every menu has a “sweet spot” towards which a reader’s eye will gravitate. On a simple menu, this will usually be somewhere near the top right. Savvy restauranteurs are therefore advised to place their high-profit items on that part of the menu.
“Eye magnets” such as boxes, fancy script and images are used to highlight profitable items that are not in the sweet spot.
If the menu is listed vertically, then people will tend to look at the top and bottom items more than the others. Menu designers should therefore place their most appealing dishes in those places.
Each section of the menu should have between five and seven items, although fine dining restaurants can push this to 10. One Bournemouth University study found that the ideal number for fast food joints was six.
Both men say it’s a bad idea to include dollar signs ($) in a menu. This is because the cumulative effect of seeing lots of dollar signs tends to make a diner think about price.
This is supported by a Cornell University experiment at a New York restaurant that discovered guests given a menu with numerals only (15) spent “significantly more” than guests given menus with dollar signs ($15) or prices in words (fifteen dollars).
Some restaurants will have a crazy-expensive “decoy” item on their menu that is intended to make the other items seem cheap, even if they’re not. Many will end their prices with .95 rather than .99, which is perceived to be a “less friendly” number.
Gromfin and Rapp agree that it’s best to hide the price at the end of a food item’s description, rather than in an easily-read column down the right side of the menu where it might encourage diners to compare prices.
“The biggest mistake,” Rapp says, “is putting little leader-dots over to the price. People will scan up and down to find the cheapest item.”
For his part, Gromfin warns against bolding the price and even suggests that the font size for prices be slightly smaller than the letters in the surrounding text. This is because numbers tend to look bigger than lower-case letters, he says.
Colours must be chosen carefully, with red and blue thought to be the surest triggers of appetite. Seafood restaurants often choose blue because of its association with the ocean.
Images require careful thought as well. Displaying photos of every dish on a menu is associated with cheap restaurants, so you’ll rarely see this done with posh nosh. Instead, you’ll see a sparing number of high-quality, appetising images or drawn illustrations.
Having said that, Rapp says that a high-quality photo of any particular dish can boost its sales by up to 30 per cent.
Careful attention to dish names and descriptions can boost sales.
One study by Brian Wansink at the University of Illinois found that descriptive names increased sales by 27 per cent compared with generic alternatives. Doesn’t “tropical fruit medley” sound better, for example, than “fruit salad”?
High-quality restaurants will use descriptive language for the ingredients and preparation – using phrases such as “homemade” and “served on a steaming bed of fresh garden greens” – as this kind of puffery is also known to increase sales.
Rapp says that tugging at a customer’s nostalgia or “humanising” a menu helps to move food beyond its status as a commodity. That’s why we see names like “Uncle Jim’s smoked river trout”.
But Wait, There’s More
These ideas are just the start.
According to the BBC, diners associate heavier menus and italic fonts with a higher quality dining experience. People enjoy wine more if the label on the bottle is hard to read. Rounder fonts are associated with sweeter-tasting food. Angular fonts evoke salty, sour or bitter foods.
One weird ploy is to name a dish with words that are uttered in a similar way to chewing. University of Cologne researchers say the made-up word “bodok” achieves this effect. Apparently, you don’t need to utter the word out loud for this to work.
So the next time you pick up a menu, steel your brain for some manipulative tricks.
“You call them tricks?” Rapp asks.
“I’d call them tools.”
Scott brings to Blink a passion for storytelling and a knack for grabbing an audience’s attention. “I love exploring the creative side of communication, which to me is more of an art than a science.” His abilities stem from a decade-long career as a journalist – he has been a finalist News Reporter of the Year, Regional Journalist of the Year and Feature Writer of the Year (Junior) at the national media awards.