8 ways a restaurant menu influences what you order

Think the layout on your favourite restaurant’s menu is down to chance? No way. Here are some techniques used by restaurants to influence the dishes we order.

1) Drop the pound sign
A 2009 New York study by the Centre for Hospitality Research at Cornell University found that customers spent 8% more on food when prices were displayed in numerals without a dollar sign. Apparently this works subliminally. If the currency symbol is displayed on the menu it reinforces what an article in the New York Times recently called “the pain of paying”. If this psychological “pain” is reduced, you could feel more like splashing out on something special.

2) Using vivid descriptions in the meal titles
Food psychologist Dr Wansink found that using various adjectives to describe a dish could icrease food sales by 27%. Effective descriptions of dishes include nostalgic ('mama’s home-baked bread'), sensory ('soft, silky pasta') or geographic ('Wiltshire ham'). He also concluded that customers felt more satisfied after eating a meal laden not with calories but with 'vivid adjectives'. Expect to see longer descriptions on high-profit dishes, to make them more attractive to diners.

3) Colours matter
Research in 2010 by Edinburgh University showed that colour plays a vital role in the “gaze directing process”. Not only can blocks of colour on a menu direct your eye to certain dishes, but could also affect your appetite. Red is known to stimulate hunger, while purple and grey do the opposite. A dish described in gold-coloured lettering on a menu infers luxury and expense, regardless of the actual quality of the meal.

4) Positioning of the dishes
Studies conducted on eye movements have shown that a reader looks first to the top left hand corner of a page. This is a prime position on a menu for a dish that the restaurant wants you to order. Dishes known in the industry as 'stars' (high-profit and popular items) and 'puzzles' (high profit but unpopular) can both often be seen here, while the 'plowhorses' (popular but low profit dishes) and 'dogs' (low popularity and low profit) are generally more hidden from view.

5) Adding brand-named ingredients
Dr Wansink identified that a brand name on a menu can be a powerful boost to sales. Dishes that include branded ingredients can encourage you to buy them based on trust and familiarity. For example 'ribs in a Jack Daniel’s marinade' or 'Haagen-Dazs ice cream' attracts a diner’s attention and conveys luxury. On menus, brand names are often printed in bold type, or using the brand’s own logo, to catch the eye. A 2008 South Australian study also found that UK shoppers were 9% more likely to choose brand-named items over others, if it was for a special occasion.

6) Using 'eye magnets'

Dr Dave Pavensic, an expert on menu-engineering, calls the visual effects that draw your eye to certain dishes “eye magnets”. Borders, text boxes, images – they all help to draw your eye to the more profitable dishes on the menu, while you instinctively skip the rest of the text. Eye-tracking studies have also shown that boxes and patterns are prioritised by the eye and brain over blocks of writing. William Poundstone, an author on menu-engineering reveals: “A box draws attention and, usually, orders. A really fancy box is better yet.”

7) Using 'Anchors'
Anchors are expensive dishes used to highlight more profitable meals on the menu. William Poundstone insists that the “anchor” is a technique used extensively on menus to sell a particular dish. An expensive dish will be placed in one of the prime positions on the menu (in the top left hand corner for example), and next to it, a less expensive but highly profitable dish. For example, seeing a £30 rib eye steak alone on a menu might look expensive, but next to a £60 seafood platter, it could look like more of a bargain.

8) Offering 'combo' meal deals
This technique is used to full effect in fast food outlets, and casual family restaurants. A customer can feel encouraged to upgrade from one dish to a meal combo for a few pounds extra, even if the 'extras' (for example a salad and a drink) might not be worth the extra amount paid. A 2010 study by Professor Kathryn Sharpe at the University of Virginia found that combo meal deals often ended up with the customer out of pocket. “We were very much surprised that people chose the combo meal option even when there was no price discount”, she said, adding “consumers are currently given subtle signals that smaller sizes are not appropriate”.

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