The secret life of menus: How restaurants try to influence what you order

ANALYSIS: Menus are packed with hidden information — but these tips and theories can help you decode it, writes Corey Mintz
By Corey Mintz - Published on September 12, 2018
Close up of text on a restaurant menu.
Most menu designers believe there are visual zones on menus that diners automatically focus on and order from most. (iStock.com/Kameleon007)

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It’s a shame that menus arrive when we’re least likely to give them our full attention.

You get to a restaurant, hungry and excited to eat. A stranger hands you a menu — maybe it’s one page, maybe a dozen. There’s a Chinese restaurant near me that has more than 500 options. Its design may be spartan or filled with photos, descriptions, and stories about the owners or explanations about where the food comes from. And at just the same moment, we’re too busy catching up with friends to give this artifact much notice. And that’s unfortunate, because there is so much happening on those pages, often between the lines.

Most of us want either to study a menu intently, as if our futures depended on ordering the perfect meal, or to wave it away as quickly as possible. The choice of entrée too hot a potato to get stuck holding, we ask our server, “What’s good tonight?” — a condescending question that no one likes (it implies that some of the menu is not good). Better to be direct: tell the server what sorts of things you like and ask them for a recommendation.

For me, it’s a moment of anxiety. I’m equally worried about ordering just the right complementary dishes to make the whole table happy and about experiencing FOMO over the runner-up foods I don’t end up ordering. In recent years, I’ve taken to studying a menu, and hopefully deciding what to order, before heading to the restaurant.

But the document itself isn’t simply a potential pathway to a special dinner — it’s also full of hidden information. And it can be a pleasure to read the secret code.

In her new book, May We Suggest: Restaurant Menus and the Art of Persuasion, author Alison Pearlman devotes two chapters to pricing and its relationship to design. Pearlman interviews menu engineers, pores over studies — conducted both in academic and in real-world settings — and discusses her own research. Let me share with you the most salient points, which you may find impossible to ignore the next time you are staring at a restaurant menu, trying to choose between the chicken and the fish.

1. We like to go with the first or last choice in a series of options. In a study conducted at a Tel Aviv café, researchers changed the order in which items appeared in the categories of appetizer, entrée, soft drinks, and dessert. Items at the beginning or end of each category list increased in popularity by 20 per cent.

2. If prices are given in numbers, but without the dollar sign or the word dollar, you’re more likely to spend more.

3. The dotted lines (known as leader dots) connecting dishes to prices are ill-advised, as they encourage comparison shopping. So does listing dishes with prices in ascending or descending order. Modern theory prefers prices centred below each dish, in a staggered order. This is part of what is known as “coherent arbitrariness,” and it forces us to absorb the whole set instead of instinctively moving toward our preferred price point.

4. Some other industry terms:

“Anchor pricing” — An item that’s extremely expensive compared to the others. It can make the other prices seem more reasonable and also offers customers a “prestige” choice. Some menu designers, however, think it’s a waste to devote valuable space on the page to a low-volume dish.

“The compromise effect” — When we have two price choices, we give them equal weight. When we have three, we strongly favour the middle price.

“Primacy” and “recency” — When hearing lists (such as a list of specials), we tend to remember the items we hear first or last.

“The me-too burger” — An item that can too easily be compared to others on the market, such that customers focus on price as value. Unless a burger has something that sets it apart (maybe an exotic-sounding cheese or caramelized onions), we see it only in relation to a product we can get anywhere else and so judge it solely according to cost.

“Sweet spots” and “prime spaces” — Most menu designers believe there are visual zones on menus that diners automatically focus on and order from most. Pearlman’s experts advise putting high-margin items there. But there is no consensus on where these sweet spots are: the first or last items in a list of text, the middle, the last two, the upper left of a page, the centre, the upper right, in areas highlighted by boxes or font sizes, or within a complicated chart of “gaze patterns.” According to Pearlman, menu consultants have identified at least 25 different sweet-spot locations.

One specific sweet spot is borne out by actual research. The upper-right zone of a menu signboard is the first place we look in a restaurant with a right-side entry aisle.

5. Despite the near worthlessness of pennies (which no longer exist in Canada), the gimmick of pricing that ends in .99 or .95 still works (and has since the 1950s), but mostly in quick service, where it is seen as an advertisement of value. By contrast, even numbers, or prices expressed without cents, are seen as a sign of quality. The two approaches are mostly segmented between the high and low ends of the industry.

6. Prices have to go up sometime. But they should be raised gradually, on selected items, and never in September, when consumers are feeling the pinch of back-to-school costs.

7. Exposure and repetition make us more likely to order something. In a 2015 experiment at a restaurant in Taiwan, a random item was featured on a blackboard menu near the door. Sales of the item rose 35 per cent.

These techniques related only to type and layout. In recent years, photography has transformed our dining choices. At one point, only lower-end restaurants featured photos on their menus, but now every stratum of dining uses the same method, if indirectly. I have seen diners in very fancy places hold their phones up to a server and ask for something they’ve seen on Instagram. And a server, if they are good at their job, will always be better than any piece of menu design at influencing consumer choices. A talented server can make split-second adjustments to their communication based on micro-assessments of diners — how they talk or dress, how they like to be treated, what words or foods they react to strongly — in order to push specific menu items.

But now that I know about coherent arbitrariness, I can’t stop thinking about it. Looking at the menu at a restaurant near me, I study the order of prices for appetizers — 4, 14, 14, 11, 16, 16, 11, 15 — and pastas — 13, 15, 18, 15, 18, 19, 18, 17 — trying to find a pattern.

Are they using primacy and recency to lure me toward the seemingly inexpensive arancini ($4 each, but $16 for a table of four, making it not the least expensive appetizer) and the cheese and salumi board ($33)? Is the anchor pricing of a steak ($46) intended to make the pastas — which range from cacio e pepe ($13) at the low end to spaghetti with anchovy and truffle ($19) at the high — seem more reasonable?

I can’t tell whether I’ve unlocked the secret code or gone cuckoo banana sauce.

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