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How Restaurant Menus Encourage Us to Spend More

The amount of money you spend has a lot to do with the layout of the menu.

With as many terrible typos and grammatical errors found on most menus, one would assume that they’re an afterthought for restaurants. But menus are the first thing people look at when trying to decide where to dine, and even if a couple of misspelled words don’t deter them, confusing layout or a lack of enticing entrée descriptions just might. That’s why savvy restaurant owners consult professional menu engineers for advice about menu design. These experts work their magic to make sure potential customers stick around for dinner—and that they order certain dishes and spend more money while doing so. 

Menu Engineering 101
The National Restaurant Association estimates that a well-designed menu can increase sales by anywhere from 2 to 10 percent. It’s amazing just how much of a difference is made by a trained engineer reworking a menu. On a recent Today Show segment, an experiment was conducted that pitted two menus against each other—one designed by a menu engineer and the other characterized by what such engineers consider to be mistakes. Both menus had the same prices and offered the same meals, but people who ordered from the specially-designed one spent about 15 percent more on their dinners.

The menu engineer interviewed on the show was Gregg Rapp, a man with over 25 years of experience in the restaurant industry. According to him, even something as simple as food descriptions with carefully chosen adjectives can increase sales as much as 30 percent. Rapp’s experience has taught him the psychology of menus—what drives people toward particular dishes, the power of placement, and how to keep their minds off prices. 

Techniques of the Trade
When we go out to eat, we believe the only things affecting our dining choices are appetite and our own preferences. But menu engineers like Rapp have several tricks up their sleeves to manipulate customers, even to the extent of ordering one entrée over another.

Navigating Menu Real Estate
There are certain areas on a menu that customers’ eyes are naturally drawn toward—this is where owners put dishes that they want ordered. In a four-page menu, that area is the upper right hand side, near the center of the page. Also, in a list of selections, people are more likely to remember the first couple and the last one, so selections put there are in favorable positions. 

The back page of menus is where cheaper, unremarkable products are placed. Rapp likens this placement to the way milk and staple items are often put at the back of supermarkets—it increases the chance those less important items will get sidelined by expensive, impulse-friendly items first. 

Hidden Prices
Rapp says that one of the biggest mistakes he sees are menus with small dots extending from the end of a dish’s description to its price. Keeping prices in their own separate column inspires people to make a choice based on budget instead of what they’re really craving. To make price a secondary matter, he recommends putting the price at the very end of the description in the same kind of font and without dollar signs so that it doesn’t stand out. As he put it on the Today Show, including it in a non-descript way “softens the price.” Customers’ attention is focused on the dish, not how much it costs.

Putting the Thesaurus to Use
If a menu doesn’t describe their food options, well, that’s just silly. But if they use bland, colorless words in the descriptions, that’s almost worse. A sentence or two dedicated to piquing the customers’ interest and appetite is all it takes to lure someone toward a particular dish, but not if they include buzz kill words like “fried” or “moist” instead of “sautéed” or “succulent.” The adjectives should hint at the intricate flavors of the dish, but it’s easy to go overboard on descriptive words, so finding an intriguing balance is the goal. 

Capitalizing on food trends in the descriptions is also a great idea. Specifying that the ingredients in a dish are heirlooms, for example, will win people over because they’re higher-quality. (It will also justify a higher price tag.)

A Picture Awakens 1,000 Taste Buds
Including pictures in a menu is a huge sales-booster, especially for restaurants using ingredients the public might be unfamiliar with. If the advertisement industry’s taught us anything, it’s that mouth-watering pictures of food really can make our mouths water and inspire our food purchases. A few well-placed photos can liven up an otherwise-drab menu, and also push certain dishes over others. 

Most people perusing a menu have no idea about the amount of care and decision-making put into everything from the placement of appetizers to font style and size. Menu engineers and restaurant owners like it that way; they want the cues to be subtle because people don’t like feeling manipulated, even if it’s toward something delicious. 

Ultimately, those who work menu magic prefer tasteful, simple designs that inspire customers toward the best—and most profitable—food choices. They know that much of a restaurant’s potential for success hinges on its menu. The food itself plays a big part as well, but menu engineers can’t help that. They can only put the idea in the customers’ heads and hope the chefs working their own magic in the kitchens can deliver what the menu promises.

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