Restaurants purposely manipulate their menus to influence customers without them realizing it. We’re not saying you should stop going out to eat because you’re being played – we can’t be mad that they want to make a profit (businesses have to pay the bills, too), we’re just saying that being more cautious and aware of how restaurants might be tricking you could help you make better choices when browsing the menu.
Hiking Up The Wine Price
You like your wine but you don’t want to spend too much on it, so you go for the second least expensive wine (because going for the least makes you seem cheap). The problem here is that restaurants know this and have a ploy to get you to spend more without even knowing it: they hike up the price on it. Yes. It’s still the second least expensive wine, but it’s not as good of a deal as you think you’re getting and is probably even cheaper than the less expensive bottle on the menu!
A Thing Called Anchoring Is Tricking You
One way restaurants use dish placement on the menu to manipulate their customers is a term called “anchoring.” This is when they put an expensive item next to even more expensive item so the first one seems like a good bargain in comparison. Oftentimes the anchor item is something like a plate of seafood that they don’t even care if they sell a lot of it because it is so costly. The main reason it’s on the menu is to raise the base price of what is reasonable to pay compared to the rest of the dishes. The $30 steak you’re getting doesn’t seem so extravagantly priced when it’s right under the $50 lobster.
Just like supermarkets placing higher priced items at eye level, restaurants have a trick too. The menu’s “eye level” spot is on the top of the right page; this is where restaurants typically place their more expensive items. The cheaper ones are usually “hidden” on the bottom of the left page.
The longer the description, the more you’re getting for your money, right? Think again. Restaurants use unnecessary words that repeat themselves, for example, a “curated” selection of cheeses is useless because curated just means selected. Being on the menu already implies it was curated. The fact that it sounds a little fancier gives restaurants the opportunity to charge more for the item because of the elite sounding ingredients. They can also charge more for a dish when they add vague and enticing adjectives like delicious, spicy, flavorful and savory because they ignite your imagination and create the taste profile in your mind. Restaurants know those words are more appealing to hungry customers because they sound “special.”
The people over at Mental Floss talked to restaurant consultant Aaron Allen who notes that adjectives like “line-caught,” “farm-raised,” or “locally-sourced” are big turn-ons for customers and even increase the perception of the dish’s quality. These phrases can be so influencing on customers that many states have “Truth in Menu” laws in place to protect customers from false claims about a dish’s origins, ingredients, and cooking methods.
“Meal For Two” Bundles
Meal for two combos have the appearance of being a deal, but do you actually take the time to add up the separate items and compare it to the bundled price? Probably not. Usually, the prices are the same amount or the bundle is even more expensive – so you end up paying more for what you think is a bargain just because it’s bundled together.
Same with prix fixe and combo meals, they may seem like a good deal because you’re getting more food, but the problem is that you don’t actually know how much you’re paying for each of the items on your plate. It could be more expensive than the separate items combined but we doubt you’re whipping out the calculator to compare.
“Authentic” Dish Names
When titling entrees, many restaurants decide to go with something that makes the dish sound more “authentic” so it seems fancier and thus they can hike up the price. Ethnic terms like “zuppe” and “insalate” (soup and salad in Italian), for example, are used as a ploy to sound like you’re getting something special, when in fact you’re just getting plain old soup and salad. The only difference is that the zuppe costs more than the soup because it’s “authentic.”
Restaurants will also try to entice customers with flowery language added to a dish name. “Succulent Italian Seafood Filet” sounds a lot more appetizing than “Fish Sticks.”
Vague Language To Hide Portion Sizes
How do you know how big a full or half salad is? You don’t – that’s the trick. The vague size difference gives no indication of how much you’re actually getting so you can’t compare the two and determine what’s the better deal for you. Let’s say you’re on a diet and want to go with the half portion: you’re more likely going to be paying more than half the price of the full order while still only getting half the size of the full salad. While that’s not always the case, when you aren’t given a clear description of what half and whole means, you have no way of figuring out the best choice price-wise.
They Make It Hard To Find Prices
Restaurants usually don’t want to make price comparing easy for you. To accomplish this, they will avoid aligning the prices in a separate column next to the dishes. Instead, they’ll put the price at the end of the item’s description. Now, it’s harder to find the prices to compare.
Luckily, higher end restaurants don’t typically use this tactic because they don’t want to mess with you. When you go to an expensive place, you sort of already know what you’re getting into and they think trying to hide the prices is tacky.
Making You Think Of Your Grandma
Mom and Pop diners have a better chance of using this tactic rather than large chains, so look out. Does “Chicken Noodle Soup” or “Grandma’s Chicken Noodle Soup” sound better? Unless your grandma was a horrible cook, you’re probably more drawn to the one with “Grandma” in the title.
Why is that more appealing? The nostalgia – it makes you think of your childhood memories, family, and tradition. Who knew restaurant menus could pull on your heartstrings like this? If you think you can get your grandma’s soup only from that particular restaurant, you’ll go back again – and that’s exactly what the restaurant owner wants, repeat customers.
Drawing Attention To Certain Items
Restaurants will try to draw attention to the more expensive dishes on their menu by highlighting them in some way. This can include putting a decoration or box around it, making it pop with a different color or larger font, and putting a picture next to the item to show it off. Seeing an image encourages you to choose with your eyes instead of with your wallet in mind. Upscale places won’t usually put pictures on their menu, though, because they think this is a cheap trick – and we agree!
Limiting The Options
Apparently, when customers have too many options they feel overwhelmed and are more likely to default to something they’ve already had. But when there is the perfect amount of options, customers are more likely to be a little bit adventurous, and even spend more on a dish. What’s the magic number? 7.
Crafting a menu with each category (appetizers, entrees, and so forth) having only 7 options will give customers the perfect amount of choices without all that anxiety. The main goal of restaurants is to get you to come back and order again, so if they have too many possible choices, you might leave thinking you made the wrong choice and it’ll turn you off from going back.
Manipulating Your Mind With Numbers
Number trickery is probably the most obvious manipulation in the book. The theory is that numbers affect our minds psychologically, and restaurants use this strategy to their benefit. Psychological pricing is when items are marked using odd numbers so customers will perceive them as lower than they actually are. Yeah, 9.95 is technically cheaper than 10 (not by much), but your brain reacts to them differently. That’s why restaurants will mark their items just below a rounded dollar. Our own brains help restaurants trick us into thinking that 5 cents cheaper is a good deal and the restaurants don’t actually have to lower profits much.
People are motivated by colors and respond emotionally to them, often subconsciously. Certain colors have general associations to feelings or even facts, that’s why colors are important to restaurants when creating a menu design. There’s a reason you can’t help but crave every red item on the menu and order more – red and orange are generally thought to stimulate appetite and make you feel hungrier. Yellow tends to draw attention better and will be used to highlight the more expensive items on a menu without the customer even realizing it. Blue is calming and oftentimes used for seafood items to give a “fresh from the water” appeal. Green is a different fresh that’s used to grab the veggie lovers’ attention and make items seem healthier than they might actually be.
Brand Names For Product Associations
Restaurants use product association because you’re more likely to buy something if you’ve already heard of it. For example, the restaurant TGIF uses Jack Daniels BBQ sauce on its dishes. The reason is that customers who like the brand will probably like the BBQ sauce that’s made with it instead of just generic BBQ sauce. Restaurants know that, so they partner up with companies, use their ingredient in the dish, and plaster their brand name all over the menu so it feels more familiar to customers. This lets them charge more for the item because they know customers are willing to pay more for the familiar brand.
Leaving Out The Dollar Sign
Browsing through a menu, you might notice something missing – dollar signs on the prices of menu items. The reason behind this is because restaurants don’t want to remind you that you’re spending money. They want you to think of food, not the amount it costs. The numbers just remain numbers instead of prices when the dollar signs are excluded, tricking your brain into thinking you aren’t actually overpaying for that appetizer that’s 13 instead of $13.