Using Menu Psychology to Entice Diners

Kershaw, S., (2009). “Using Menu Psychology to Entice Diners.” New York Times Online. Visited on October 02, 2010:

This article discusses how an understanding of human psychology is being applied to sculpt a restaurant menu into a lucrative tool for the restaurateur. Restaurateurs play down the importance of the cost figure by eliminating the dollar sign and decimals. Adding a personal touch to an item (‘Grandma Mary’s cake’) or a descriptive menu label (‘buttery pasta’) draws more attention to the dish. Other decoys include using a description that glorifies a more profitable dish compared to others. During the tough economic times in the last year, some restaurants were reinventing their restaurants through such menu design techniques, and were hoping that would make the difference they needed.

Conceptual design: When you go to a restaurant, good food is not the only thing you seek; you are looking for a good experience. Of course sometimes, great food can make us turn a blind eye to any other inadequacy and draw us back into the restaurant. Nevertheless, a good experience overall manifests itself as a stronger loyalty. If your overall experience has made a lasting positive impression, you may recommend the restaurant to others or take friends with you. Although the level of expectation varies based on the type of restaurant — whether it is a diner, a fast food chain, or a fine dining restaurant — there is a baseline expectation. Customers want to be greeted well, seated promptly, presented with a clear idea of the food they can order, attended to just enough, served good food, and charged appropriately. It is in the restaurateur’s best interest to create a positive impression on the customer while fulfilling the customer’s expectations from this “script”. Giving thought to the menu design fits well into this concept of building a customer experience.

For the restaurateur, the menu is her business card. It is an advertisement for what her restaurant has to offer. It will directly influence what the customer will order and, thereby, how much he will spend. If applied correctly, menu psychology will work to her advantage.

Menu redesign specifically to get through a tough economy may have to address other issues. If it is a pain point at the time, the price will be noticed regardless of the placement and format. Studying the needs of the customers and catering to them would be a better approach. What do diners look for when they go out in a tough economy? Deals, happy hours, lunch specials, value prefix menus, anything that will let them go out and have fun without being too heavy on their wallet. Incorporating such specials and highlighting them in the menu is what may do the trick.

Interface Design: The menu is one of the critical points of interaction a customer will have with the restaurant. How should this interface be designed? What governs the design of this interface? Clarity is of utmost importance to the customer. The restaurateur would like to take the focus off the price point and place it on the dish itself. She would like to sell a more profitable dish to the customer. Tricks like glorifying a more expensive dish or making other dishes appear inexpensive compared to the most expensive dish work well with the adage of “It’s all relative.” There are several times where I have caught myself saying “Mmm….that sounds yum!” while reading a particularly delicious description on a menu.

There are other factors to be taken into account while designing the menu interface. What does the restaurant brand mean? Is it fine dining, a fast food chain, or somewhere in between? Placing a picture of a profitable dish on a strategic corner of the men (sometimes referred to as a sweet spot) may work for Chevys, but not for Fleur De Lys. Pictures don’t seem classy and may not appeal to those who choose to dine at a fine dining restaurant. Depending on the image the restaurant is trying to portray, some restaurants may not use decimals and round their prices to the higher integer. But some others could play the “3.99 is 3, not 4” perception to their advantage.

Another factor to take into account is the vocabulary of the target customers. Presenting the menu in more familiar terms would prevent customers from feeling alienated.

Last but not the least, while a menu is an advertisement, care should be taken to not let the customer feel manipulated.