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Five restaurant menu mind tricks revealed

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You may or may not know it, but restaurants play mind tricks and it all starts when you open the menu.

The restaurant menu can represent the mood the restaurant wants to set. The menu pages can also relay to diners the restaurant’s identity. The menu is known as the restaurant’s calling card, a marketing tool that can make a critical difference in a restaurant’s profitability. And that’s why restaurants sometimes spend significant amounts of money on menu consultants that understand diner psychology. Menu engineers are paid big bucks to help restaurateurs craft a menu that might understand you better than you understand yourself.

So, what do menu engineers know that you might not know?

Click through the following list of restaurant menu “tricks”.

1.Omit the dollar sign
1.Omit the dollar sign flickr

1.Omit the dollar sign

Less is more when it comes to listing prices on restaurant menus. According to a 2009 New York Times article by Sarah Kershaw, restaurant menu consultants often advise restaurateurs to omit dollar signs on menus.  Consultants say that dollar signs come off as aggressive, tacky and subconsciously remind diners that they will have to pay at the end of the meal. Many restaurants also leave off cent signs, preferring to round to the nearest dollar. 

2. Use descriptive, romantic copy
2. Use descriptive, romantic copy flickr

2. Use descriptive, romantic copy

Restaurateurs have learned that vivid descriptions of their dishes can make a difference in what diners order. According to a 2001 Food Psychology study conducted by scholars at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, descriptive labels of foods led to a 27 percent increase in restaurant sales. Employing more evocative descriptions that underline freshness and technique, like “seared duck breast” instead of only “duck”, have also been proven to boost restaurants’ profitability. Inserting recognizable brand names, like Chapel Hill Creamery Carolina Moon cheese, into menu descriptions can also increase how much a diner is willing to pay for a dish.

Conversely, being too descriptive and verbose can work adversely for restaurateurs according to a TIME article. Some high-end restaurants choose to leave menu copy as streamlined and simple. Foreign-sounding ingredients sometimes can cause confusion and, worse yet, alienate the customer. Utilizing too many descriptors may also lead to higher rates of disappointment if the dish does not live up the menu hype. 

3. Position high-profit items in "sweet spots"
3. Position high-profit items in "sweet spots" flickr

3. Position high-profit items in "sweet spots"

Restaurateurs use menu layout to their advantage. A study conducted by Dr. Sybil Yang at SF State University and highlighted by has shown that most diners generally will make two passes with their eyes over any given restaurant menu. Despite Yang’s study that reports that most diners scan menus like a book, many menu consultants still subscribe to the “sweet spots” menu theory. Certain sections of the menu have been labeled “sweet spots”, places where restaurant menu engineers should position the most profitable dishes.  In a three-page menu, the “sweet spots” have been previously identified as: center of the middle page, top right corner and top left corner.

Restaurateurs will also place more expensive dishes further up top to make other entrees below look more reasonably priced. The NY Times reports that studies have shown that diners tend to pick entrees in the median-priced range. 

4. Select an appropriate font
4. Select an appropriate font flickr

4. Select an appropriate font

The menu font or typography that a restaurateur chooses can subconsciously alter a customer’s behavior and perception. According to the TIME article, difficult-to-read font may subconsciously signal that a dish is complex and fancy. In a study described in the TIME study, diners were given menus in an upscale New York City restaurant in two fonts: one a simple Arial and the other a harder-to-read Mistral. Subjects in the Mistral font group were more likely to conclude that the same dish was more difficult to prepare and required greater skill.

And while using harder-to-read fonts may skew the perceived value and complexity of dishes, the TIME article also points out that fancy or illegible fonts may also signal pretentiousness and incite negative effects as well.

5. Size the menu correctly
5. Size the menu correctly flickr

5. Size the menu correctly

A menu psychology study by Dr. Dave Pavesic reports that larger size menus can be overly bulky and obstructive to a dining party trying to maintain conversation while holding an oversized menu.

And the literal size of the menu is not the only size problem that exists. Pavesic states that menus wrought with too many choices can work adversely for restaurants. Pavesic cites that 60 to 70 percent of restaurant sales come from fewer than 18 to 24 menu items. Since most diners only spend an average of 109 seconds total scanning a menu, too many choices can lead to longer ordering times for diners and, in turn, less guest turnover for restaurants.