Heading Out to Eat? A Closer Look at the Menu Might Surprise You

Restaurants are very savvy about designing menus that help you decide what they’d like you to eat.

At some point over the holidays you’ll be with family and friends and quite possibly at a nice restaurant (for me, that would be one that doesn’t have a children’s menu). Nestled in your comfy banquette seat, white napkin on your lap, you’ll peruse a list of what might seem at first to be impossible-to-choose-from options. But don’t think for a moment that the restaurant owners, chef and maitre‘d haven’t seen you coming and taken bets on what you’re likely to select from those choices.

Understanding consumer behavior underlies the marketing of everything you buy, and restaurant menus are no stranger to this. Restaurateurs now know what their customers are likely to look for, see and order long before they walk in the door. They have to. In order to purchase effectively, reduce waste and create a positive experience for their clientele, there’s a great deal of planning that goes into successful predictions. That’s not to say that a restaurant is forcing you to make a particular choice, but the visual reference cues on their menus are likely to influence what you order.

For example at a new Georgetown restaurant, the owner made sure his sushi menu was in the top right-hand corner – and boxed. The restaurant had made a big investment in the sushi offerings and it was important that it get headliner attention. At most upscale restaurants, this practice is common. You’ll often see two “boxed” high-priced entrees in an upper corner, one being the restaurants signature dish, the other no less so but slightly less expensive, making it look like a better value. It’s not unusual for that less expensive item to be the restaurant’s top-seller.

The use of outlines, shaded boxes and large typefaces on menus are deliberately meant to call your attention to those items the restaurant is most interested in promoting. The reasons for that could be that these are their most popular dishes anyway and they want your eye drawn to them quickly, but they could also be new items on whose success they are counting.

Pricing on menus is a fascinating study. Few of us are not price-conscious, but well-designed menus have a way of pulling our attention off the dollar signs and onto the food. On menus that have prices clearly listed along the right-hand column, we tend to scan for the bargain. On those that have prices listed just following the item narrative, preferably without dollar signs, decimal points or cents, we’re more likely to make our decision based on the how the item is described.

Most menus still follow the rule of most expensive items first in a column so it’s common to find less profitable, yet popular, items at the bottom. Still, if that’s what you have a hankering for, don’t feel pressured to order up. The same goes for what’s termed “bracketed” items, those with two serving sizes. The larger serving might seem like a better value, but almost without a doubt the smaller serving will be more than ample. Don’t order more than you can eat unless you pre-plan to take some home for a second meal.

Even at family-style restaurants diners will have noticed changes to the menus, mostly the elimination of a lot of items. Research showed that less than 25 items made up the majority of purchases. By scaling down items and menu size, these restaurants were more effectively able to purchase foods and had better table turnover because diners no longer needed tons of time to make a decision. Still others found that a large bulk of sales were in drinks and appetizers because customers were too menu-fatigued to make it to page 10 where the entrees were listed.

So next time you’re out, have a closer look at the menu you are reading and think about what kind of buyer you are. Are you the bargain hunter who looks for best deal at the bottom of the page? A drink and appetizer eater who can’t seem to read through to the entrees? Do you avoid extremes by trying to find something mid-priced that you’ll enjoy? Or do you throw caution into the wind and order just what you like? Studying the carefully crafted and designed document in front of you and understanding even a small bit of buyer behavior will tell you a lot about the place you’re eating and how you decide what to order.


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