Tuesday, December 29, 2009

"That Looks Good!"

"Using Menu Psychology to Entice Diners"

In the “Ten Commandments for Menu Success,” an article published in Restaurant Hospitality magazine in 1994, Allen H. Kelson, a restaurant consultant, wrote, “If admen had souls, many would probably trade them for an opportunity every restaurateur already has: the ability to place an advertisement in every customer’s hand before they part with their money.”

And 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.

For the operators of most high-end restaurants, the menu psychology is usually drawn from instinct and experience. Mr. Meyer, for example, said he had developed most of his theories through trial and error.

“We thought long and hard about the psychology because this is a complete relaunch of a restaurant entirely through its menu and through the psychology of the menu,” Mr. Meyer said. “The chefs write the music and the menu becomes the lyrics, and sometimes the music is gorgeous and it’s got the wrong lyrics and the lyrics can torpedo the music.”

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 unconscious.

Susan Franck, vice president of marketing for the chain, said she was intrigued about the four types of diners Mr. Rapp had identified. The customers he calls “Entrees” do not want a lot of description, just the bottom line on what the dish is and how much it is going to cost. “Recipes,” on the other hand, ask many questions and want to know as much as they can about the ingredients. “Barbecues” share food and like chatty servers who wear name tags. “Desserts” are trendy people who want to order trendy things.

(I think I'm an "Entree". What are you?)

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.”

Mr. Rapp, of Palm Springs, Calif., also says that if a restaurant wants to use prices that include cents, like $9.99 or $9.95 (without the dollar sign, of course), he strongly recommends .95, which he said “is a friendlier price,” whereas .99 is “cornier.” On the other hand, 10, or “10 dollars,” has attitude, which is what restaurants using those price formats are selling.

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.

Indeed, restaurants like Huddle House and Applebee’s are adding language that suggests a rush of intense satisfaction. At Applebee’s, dishes are described as “handcrafted,” “triple-basted,” “slow-cooked,” “grilled” and “slammed with flavor.”

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.

Tabla experimented with several different fonts and colors before settling on the final version. At one point, the cost of the liver and other prices were shaded navy blue, and some menu headings were orange. While the final version is in black and white, Mr. Meyer said he was thinking about adding orange and red. He remembers, from a hospitality management class he took years ago, what he learned about the gospel on color: red and blue stimulate appetite, while gray and purple stimulate satiation. You will not find a shade of gray or purple on any of the menus at his 11 restaurants, he said.



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