Ktetaichinh’s Blog

December 24, 2009

Using Menu Psychology to Entice Diners

Filed under: Uncategorized — ktetaichinh @ 5:39 am
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http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/23/dining/23menus.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2

Left to its own devices, it may be unappetizing and unpopular, but when paired with what he calls an enhancer — applewood smoked bacon in the case of the chicken liver on the menu at Tabla, Mr. Meyer’s Indian fusion restaurant in the Flatiron District — it not only excites the taste buds but goes to work on the mind.

And the name of the Tabla appetizer, Boodie’s Chicken Liver Masala, draws even deeper from the growing field of menu psychology because Boodie is the mother of Floyd Cardoz, Tabla’s executive chef. People like the names of mothers, grandmothers and other relatives on their menus, and research shows they are much more likely to buy, say, Grandma’s zucchini cookies, burgers freshly ground at Uncle Sol’s butcher shop this morning and Aunt Phyllis’s famous wedge salad.

After Tabla merged with its downstairs sibling, the Bread Bar at Tabla, in October, Mr. Meyer and his team spent months pondering such matters before unveiling a new menu earlier this month. The price of Boodie’s chicken livers, for example, is $9, written simply as 9. This is a friendly and manageable number at a time when numbers really need to be friendly and manageable. Besides, it has no dollar sign. In the world of menu engineering and pricing, a dollar sign is pretty much the worst thing you can put on a menu, particularly at a high-end restaurant. Not only will it scream “Hello, you are about to spend money!” into a diner’s tender psyche, but it can feel aggressive and look tacky. So can price formats that end in the numeral 9, as in $9.99, which tend to signify value but not quality, menu consultants and researchers say.

Tabla is just one of the many restaurants around the country that are feverishly revising their menus. Pounded by the recession, they are hoping that some magic combination of prices, adjectives, fonts, type sizes, ink colors and placement on the page can coax diners into spending a little more money.

“There is constant tinkering going on right now with menus and menu pricing,” said Sheryl E. Kimes, a professor of hospitality management at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration. “A lot of creative things are going on because the restaurants are trying to hold on for dear life to make sure they get through this.”

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.

Huddle House, the family-dining chain with more than 400 restaurants in 17 states, is rolling out a test menu at 20 restaurants next week. The company hired Gregg Rapp, a menu engineer and consultant who holds “menu boot camps” for restaurants around the country. He said he had been “taking dollar signs off menus for 25 years,”

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.

We can’t do much of a price increase, yet we’re searching for ways to increase our profit for the franchises,” Ms. Franck said. “If you have a signature item, make a logo for it, put more copy to it, romance the description with smokehouse bacon, country ham or farm fresh eggs.”

She said the chain took dollar signs off the menu in 2007, and now on the test menu, instead of an omelet and orange juice, there is “the light and fluffy Heavenly Omelet” and “Minute Maid orange juice.”

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.

Research by Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University and the author of “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think,” suggests that the average person makes more than 200 decisions about food every day, many of them unconsciously, including the choices made from reading menus.

Menu design draws some of its inspiration from newspaper layout, which puts the most important articles at the top right of the front page, where the eyes tend to be drawn. Some restaurants will place their most profitable items, or their specials, in that spot. Or they place a dotted outline or a box around the item, put more white space around it to make the dish stand out or, in what menu researchers say is one of the most effective tools, add a photograph of the item or an icon like a chili pepper.

(Photos of foie gras on the menus of white-tablecloth restaurants would be surprising, however. Menu consultants say those establishments should never use pictures.)

Unless a restaurant wants to frighten its customers, the price should always be at the very end of a menu description and should not be in any way highlighted.

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.

A dash or a period after the number appears to be more of an aesthetic choice than a psychological tool, according to one of the authors of the menu pricing study, Sybil S. Yang, a doctoral student at Cornell. Numbers followed by neither a dash nor a period are most common.

Mr. Meyer said that in his view, adding zeros to the price, as in 14.00, is not a good idea because “there’s no reason to have pennies if you’re not using pennies, and it takes the price from being two digits into four digits, even if the two last digits are zeros. It’s irrelevant, and the number could feel more important, which is not a menu writer’s goal.”

(Some prices at his restaurants do end in .50, and at Mr. Meyer’s Shake Shack burger joints, his foray into retro-casual dining, some end with .25 or .75 — but the prices are always rounded to the quarter. The Shake Shacks are the only of Mr. Meyer’s restaurants with menu prices preceded by dollar signs.)

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.

In contemplating the Tabla menu, Mr. Cardoz said he and Mr. Meyer decided there were too many unusual Indian terms that were alienating customers, so they kept only the most recognizable words, like tandoori, paneer and tikka.

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.

Mr. Cardoz, who is also a partner at Tabla, said he considered the menu to be an important tool for communicating with his customers.

“I feel most guests want to know what my inspiration was for any dish, and when they realize there is a connection for me doing something, they want to try it and they want to know it,” he said.

And there was one connection he was definitely not going to take off the menu, whether it was on the chicken liver or the onion rings, which come with “Boodie’s Ketchup”: his mother.

Even brief descriptions on menus like Tabla’s and Craft’s seem verbose compared with those on the menu at Alinea in Chicago, which on a recent night featured esoteric dishes called Peanut Butter and Bubble Gum, with a few more words that did not provide much more illumination. Next to Lemon Soda, the menu simply said: “one bite.”

Alinea offers no à la carte choices, only predetermined tastings, so the menu is not a sales pitch. Instead, it is “a language tool, so we’re trying to uphold the philosophy of the entire restaurant with every component — the sense of nostalgia, the sense of humor,” Alinea’s executive chef, Grant Achatz, said. “With Bubble Gum, there is a kind of mystique to the lack of description. I came from the French Laundry, and each dish came with a paragraph-long description. We want it to be more mysterious as a clean, crisp, graphically laid out object.”

He said he wanted the menu to resemble sheet music, so it has a line of bubbles snaking through the copy. The bigger the bubble, the more bites it takes to consume that dish.

When Alinea opened in 2005 it gave out menus at the start of the meal, like other restaurants. But they were of limited use to diners, Mr. Achatz said, because “our food is so manipulated that even if I wrote ‘venison, cranberries, lentils and beets,’ it’s not going to look like they think it’s going to look anyway.”

Now Mr. Achatz has adopted a practice that turns the world of menu psychology upside down: his customers do not get them until after they eat.

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