A restaurant’s menu is a psychological chess match. Beyond descriptions that make the dishes appetizing, marketers and restaurant owners, using typography, arrangement and design, must shepherd customers to the dishes and distract the them away from pondering the prices. In contrast, customers attempt to weigh their gastronomic desires against the prices. Who prevails can be crucial to the restaurant’s success as a lot is in the balance when customers opt for a relatively unprofitable $15 dish instead of a profitable $28 dish.
But that’s oversimplifying it. No matter what you do, if customers see prices, they will, to some extent, take them into consideration (of course you should minimize this as much as possible). Therefore, even how dishes of different profit and price are arranged on the menu can influence a customer’s final decision. To add to that, the graphic design (text, borders, boxes) can make one dish stand out while burying a dish in a list may lead to customer’s not ordering it. And it’s cannot be stressed enough that you can put your restaurant at a disadvantage if you conform to a normal menu layout without thinking about if it works for your bottom line. Take for example the practice of using columns for dishes and prices rather than tagging the price on the end of the description (putting the emphasis on the dish). By tagging, the customer cannot mindlessly compare prices. Details like that go a long way when you think about it over the long term.
There is something else to include in your thinking. Besides prices, another thing to consider is if you have a dish that everyone loves, it may be good to feature it even if it doesn’t offer the highest return. Repeat customers and good word of mouth are much better investments in the long run.
Still, as dishes are not created equal, the lesson is to be very conscious of your customer’s thought processes when laying out a menu. Otherwise you run the risk of not achieving the full economic potential of your restaurant’s cuisine.
In Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It), author William Poundstone dissects the marketing tricks built into menus—for example, how something as simple as typography can drive you toward or away from that $39 steak.
Puzzles, anchors, stars, and plowhorses; those are a few of the terms consultants now use when assembling a menu (which is as much an advertisement as anything else).
“A star is a popular, high-profit item—in other words, an item for which customers are willing to pay a good deal more than it costs to make,” Poundstone explains. “A puzzle is high-profit but unpopular; a plowhorse is the opposite, popular yet unprofitable. Consultants try to turn puzzles into stars, nudge customers away from plowhorses, and convince everyone that the prices on the menu are more reasonable than they look.” Poundstone uses Balthazar’s menu to illustrate these ideas.
- The Upper Right-Hand Corner
That’s the prime spot where diners’ eyes automatically go first. Balthazar uses it to highlight a tasteful, expensive pile of seafood. Generally, pictures of food are powerful motivators but also menu taboos—mostly because they’re used extensively in lowbrow chains like Chili’s and Applebee’s. This illustration “is as far as a restaurant of this caliber can go, and it’s used to draw attention to two of the most expensive orders,” Poundstone says.
- The Anchor
The main role of that $115 platter—the only three-digit thing on the menu—is to make everything else near it look like a relative bargain, Poundstone says.
- Right Next Door
At a mere $70, the smaller seafood platter next to Le Balthazar seems like a deal, though there’s no sense of how much food you’re getting. It’s an indefinite comparison that also feels like an indulgence—a win-win for the restaurant.
- In The Vicinity
The restaurant’s high-profit dishes tend to cluster near the anchor. Here, it’s more seafood at prices that seem comparatively modest.
- Columns Are Killers
According to Brandon O’Dell, one of the consultants Poundstone quotes in Priceless, it’s a big mistake to list prices in a straight column. “Customers will go down and choose from the cheapest items,” he says. At least the Balthazar menu doesn’t use leader dots to connect the dish to the price; that draws the diner’s gaze right to the numbers. Consultant Gregg Rapp tells clients to “omit dollar signs, decimal points, and cents … It’s not that customers can’t check prices, but most will follow whatever subtle cues are provided.”
- The Benefit Of Boxes
“A box draws attention and, usually, orders,” Poundstone says. “A really fancy box is better yet. The fromages at the bottom of the menu are probably high-profit puzzles.”
- Menu Siberia
That’s where low-margin dishes that the regulars like end up. The examples here are the easy-to-miss (and relatively inexpensive) burgers.
A regular trick, it’s when the same dish comes in different sizes. Here, that’s done with steak tartare and ravioli—but because “you never know the portion size, you’re encouraged to trade up,” Poundstone says. “Usually the smaller size is perfectly adequate.”