People like the names of mothers, grandmothers and other relatives on their menus, and research shows they are much more likely to buy, say, Grandma’s zucchini cookies, burgers freshly ground at Uncle Sol’s butcher shop this morning and Aunt Phyllis’s famous wedge salad.
In the world of menu engineering and pricing, a dollar sign is pretty much the worst thing you can put on a menu, particularly at a high-end restaurant. Not only will it scream “Hello, you are about to spend money!” into a diner’s tender psyche, but it can feel aggressive and look tacky. So can price formats that end in the numeral 9, as in $9.99, which tend to signify value but not quality, menu consultants and researchers say.
The use of menu engineers and consultants is exploding in the casual dining arena and among national chains, a sector of the business that has been especially pinched by the economy. In response, they are tapping into a growing body of research into the science of menu pricing and writing, hoping the way to a diner’s heart is not only through the stomach, but through the subconscious.
Like advertisements, menus contain plenty of subliminal messages.
Some restaurants use what researchers call decoys. For example, they may place a really expensive item at the top of the menu, so that other dishes look more reasonably priced; research shows that diners tend to order neither the most nor least expensive items, drifting toward the middle. Or restaurants might play up a profitable dish by using more appetizing adjectives and placing it next to a less profitable dish with less description so the contrast entices the diner to order the profitable dish.
Research by Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University and the author of “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think,” suggests that the average person makes more than 200 decisions about food every day, many of them unconsciously, including the choices made from reading menus.
Menu design draws some of its inspiration from newspaper layout, which puts the most important articles at the top right of the front page, where the eyes tend to be drawn. Some restaurants will place their most profitable items, or their specials, in that spot. Or they place a dotted outline or a box around the item, put more white space around it to make the dish stand out or, in what menu researchers say is one of the most effective tools, add a photograph of the item or an icon like a chili pepper.
(Photos of foie gras on the menus of white-tablecloth restaurants would be surprising, however. Menu consultants say those establishments should never use pictures.)
Unless a restaurant wants to frighten its customers, the price should always be at the very end of a menu description and should not be in any way highlighted.
A study published in the spring by Dr. Kimes and other researchers at Cornell found that when the prices were given with dollar signs, customers — the research subjects dined at St. Andrew’s Cafe at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. — spent less than when no dollar signs appeared. The study, published in the Cornell Hospitality Report, also found that customers spent significantly more when the price was listed in numerals without dollar signs, as in “14.00” or “14,” than when it included the word “dollar,” as in “Fourteen dollars.” Apparently even the word “dollar” can trigger what is known as “the pain of paying.”
A dash or a period after the number appears to be more of an aesthetic choice than a psychological tool, according to one of the authors of the menu pricing study, Sybil S. Yang, a doctoral student at Cornell. Numbers followed by neither a dash nor a period are most common.
Other research by Dr. Wansink found that descriptive menu labels increased sales by as much as 27 percent. He has divided descriptions into four categories: geographic labels like “Southwestern Tex-Mex salad,” nostalgia labels like “ye old potato bread,” sensory labels like “buttery plump pasta” and brand names. Finding that brand names help sales, chains are increasingly using what is known as co-branding on their menus, like the Jack Daniel’s sauce at T.G.I. Friday’s and the Minute Maid orange juice on the Huddle House menu, Dr. Wansink said.
Dr. Wansink said that vivid adjectives can not only sway a customer’s choice but can also leave them more satisfied at the end of the meal than if they had eaten the same item without the descriptive labeling.
BUT many higher-end restaurateurs say they are paring the menu by using cleaner and simpler copy. In those cases, many of the items are inherently descriptive, like the Roasted and Braised Suckling Pig at Craft in Manhattan. There, the left side of the menu lists the farms and other sources of its ingredients. Those names were removed from the individual item descriptions in a streamlining effort, and the serving staff is required to explain many of the accompanying ingredients, including sauces, so the copy is spare.
Source: Excerpts; New York Times