Grab a menu the next time you are at a restaurant, and chances are the "special" will catch your eye. Restaurants know it will sell many more and that’s why they list their most profitable item there.
William Poundstone, author of “Priceless: The Myth Of Fair Value,” a book on how businesses exploit their customers, has examined the psychology behind “menu engineering.” That’s the secret way restaurants try to urge us to pick the most expensive dishes they sell, the Daily Mail notes.
And because we're oblivious to what they’re doing it, they’re almost always successful.
“People rarely go into restaurants knowing exactly what they want to order or how much they want to spend,” explains Poundstone. “And we can be influenced by all sorts of things that we’re not aware of.”
You may think you’re picking what you most want to eat from a restaurant’s menu, but research says differently. Menu consultants exist to make you order the more expensive and most profitable dishes from a restaurant’s menu through design tricks.
“Middle class chain restaurants like Olive Garden, Hooters and TGI Friday’s are really on the cutting edge of menu science because they have standardized menus and look at what’s selling and what’s not,” Poundstone told ABC News earlier this year. “And they do everything they can to increase their profits from it.”
For example, a study by the Center For Hospitality Research at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, found that when dollar signs were left off a menu, sales went up by 8 percent.
“The more space you devote to something on a menu, the more people pay attention to it,” Poundstone explains. “So if you have a pound sign and the number of pence, it takes up more space on the page — and more space in your mental attention. And obviously the restaurant does not want you to choose your food on the basis of price.”
That’s also why menus often have items and their prices centered on the page, instead of listing them in a straight column on the right-hand side. This makes it harder to look over the menu and compare.
Some restaurants “anchor” prices with a highly expensive dish prominently on the menu, in order to make other dishes nearby appear relatively cheap in comparison.
At Marco Pierre White’s Marco Grill in London, there’s a 35 ounce Tomahawk steak on sale for £70 ($116.44). Restaurants do not expect to sell many of these expensive “anchor” items, says Poundstone. Instead, they are there to make the other dishes look like good value.
Research has also gone into where we look when we first open a menu. It’s estimated that we spend 109 seconds on average reading a menu.
Studies have shown that when we’re given a list we remember best the item at the very start, and the one at the end — it’s the way our memory works.
We will also turn our eyes first to the top right-hand corner of a page in front of us, where the most profitable items are usually placed.
The menu might also use other ways of getting our attention: an item in a different color; a different typeface; and even pictures of food.
“The food that’s illustrated gets ordered more than ones that don’t, so the food they have pictures of are ones they get more profit on,” Poundstone told ABC.
Professor Charles Spence, an Oxford University psychologist, is the co-author of “The Perfect Meal: The Multisensory Science Of Food And Dining,” and alerts to the techniques in play.
“I was in the burger restaurant Byron the other day,” he says. “The menu is all in black and white, except for one item, which is highlighted in bright red. And it’s their most expensive item.”
Professor Spence says that people are also likely to spend more if menus — and especially wine lists — are heavy to handle. Even the words that menus use can persuade us to pull out our wallets.