Believe it or not, there’s a whole field of menu psychology and menu engineering that focuses on how the design of menus influences what customers order. Not surprisingly, restaurants try to draw attention to items they want to sell most—those, of course, that are most profitable. And they do so in some unexpected ways. As a result, you may be enticed to order more food than you would otherwise.
Many tactics are used in the creation of menus, including manipulation of layout, descriptions and prices. The industry may not want you to know about the tricks of the trade, but reading between the menu lines can help you make wiser—and more healthful—decisions. Here’s what to watch for.
- Sweet spots. It has long been thought that people scan menus in a zigzag fashion, with their eyes focusing first and lingering longer on the upper right quadrant of the menu, called the sweet spot. Thus, items with a higher profit margin are often placed there; in some cases, you may see this area boxed or highlighted. Though a 2012 study from Cornell University found that menu readers did not in fact linger on that spot—rather, they read the menu as they would a book, from top to bottom and left to right—many restaurants still place higher-profit items in that corner. If anything, the study found possible sour spots, where people gaze less, on the bottom area of each page.
- Price games. Does the way prices are listed affect what you choose? Apparently so, according to a 2009 study, also from Cornell University, that compared three versions of a menu at an upscale restaurant. Prices were given with the dollar sign ($20, for example), by number without the sign (20) or spelled out (twenty dollars). Interestingly, there was a significant (8 percent) increase in spending when the prices were listed by number alone. In contrast, spending was reduced when there were overt references to money ($ and dollars), perhaps because this activates the “pain of paying effect.”
- Menu decoys. Diners tend not to order the most or least expensive dishes. Hence, some restaurants list really expensive items on menus as decoys to make other dishes look more reasonably priced. You may not ever think to order the $35 steak, for example (bonus to the restaurant if you did), but having that pricey item on the menu makes the $24 dish seem like a bargain.
- Naming names. Foods with more evocative descriptions sell better, according to a six-week study at the University of Illinois from 2001. People were more likely to order items labeled as Succulent Italian Seafood Filet, Home-style Chicken Parmesan, Grandma’s Zucchini Cookies and Satin Chocolate Pudding (rather than just Seafood Filet, Chicken Parmesan, Zucchini Cookies or Chocolate Pudding), because the names evoke feel-good, often nostalgic, associations. They also rated these foods as better value and higher quality, even though they weren’t.
- Manipulating portion sizes. Fast-food and chain restaurants make more profit when you super-size—and one way to tempt you is to manipulate serving sizes. According to research published a few years ago in the Journal of Consumer Research, most people don’t order the smallest or largest soft drink option, preferring instead a medium size, no matter how big that is. Thus, many people who would choose 16 ounces when given the choice of 12, 16 or 21 ounces, will choose 21 ounces when the options are 16, 21 or 32 ounces. The researchers estimated that the upward manipulation of serving sizes at fast-food restaurants over the years has increased high-calorie soda consumption by 15 percent. Don’t go middle of the road—order the smallest size, even if the next bigger size costs only a little more. Better yet, order tap water.
- Healthy items. You might assume that having healthy items on a menu would promote healthier food selections in general. But, oddly enough, they may have the opposite effect, at least in some people, suggested another study published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2009. Half the participants were given the option of ordering a baked potato, chicken nuggets and/or French fries as side dishes, while the other half could choose any of those items and/or a salad. When salad was not on the menu, people with high self-control rarely chose the least healthy side (the fries). But when salad was available, they were more likely to choose the fries. It’s not clear why this happened, but perhaps merely considering a salad fulfills some people’s healthy eating goals so they feel they have “permission” to temporarily pursue more tempting alternatives. Still, even if such healthy foods don’t sell well, just offering them on the menu is good marketing. On the other hand, a study from Israel in 2011 suggested that restaurants may be able to nudge people toward healthier selections by placing them at the top or bottom of the list, rather than in the center.
- The sound of music. Besides manipulating menus, restaurants also tinker with the environment to increase sales. For example, many play very loud music, which makes you chew faster and leave sooner, so there is a higher table turnover. That may be profitable for the restaurant, but not for you, since eating quickly doesn’t give your stomach time to signal your brain that you are full, so you may end up overeating. Loud music may also make people drink more, which is especially profitable for bars and restaurants.
Make Better Restaurant Choices
Restaurants want to maximize what you spend. The more items they can sell you, or the more they can persuade you to order larger sizes, the better for them. Learn how to choose wisely when you are dining out.