Dining Out? They’re Playing With Your Mind

You sit down at an upscale restaurant and scan the menu, banter with the waiter, and make your selection. You feel sure you’ve chosen what you want, based on your appetite, your budget, or your culinary preferences.

But have you really?

Behind the scenes, some restaurants have cleverly designed their menus to steer you towards the dishes they want you to try. The art of “menu engineering” uses the visual and verbal psychology behind food choices to develop the perfect menu.

Now, this isn’t some kind of a scam where the restaurant rips you off. The restaurant can’t make you order you something you don’t want. But a well-designed menu can influence your choice. This is similar to the importance of physical restaurant design; the right ambiance makes diners want to try exotic foods, experiment with new wines, and linger for dessert.

Whatever your business, understanding menu engineering provides insights into how people make decisions, and how subtle changes can dramatically affect those decisions, both in the restaurant industry and in your own.


Diners tend to scan a menu rather than read it carefully, and they do so in less than two minutes. So how can restaurant owners make sure that diners see the dishes they most want them to order?

First and foremost, they focus on the sections of the menu that are “prime real estate” – the places where people spend most of those two minutes looking. In a one-page menu, the upper right-hand corner is the “sweet spot” of the menu. It’s where diners look first, so the highest-margin dishes are usually placed there.

Bright colors attract the eye, so menu engineers can use color to draw the diner’s attention to a specific item or group of items.  Boxes also draw attention, especially boxes with decorative frames.

Consider the following example from a restaurant in New York. The sweet spot contains two expensive seafood platters (plateaux de fruits de mer). With the added illustration and a touch of color, these items are designed to draw attention to themselves. You can probably guess that these platters bring in higher profits than some of the other menu items.

Price It Right

Many menu engineers warn not to list prices in a straight column. Doing so makes it easier for diners to choose based on price, rather than which menu item they would prefer. Leader dots that connect the item to its price are also viewed as a no-no.

And then there are dollars and cents. Many restaurants choose to omit dollar signs, instead using round numbers. In fact, a study conducted by The Center for Hospitality Research found that diners spend a lot more at restaurants that omit the dollar signs.

Here’s a restaurant that’s less than five minutes from my office. Their menu uses both these techniques — they’ve tossed the dollar signs and made sure the prices are not lined up.

Watch Your Language

Which would you rather choose: “Gingered spring tomato bisque” or “tomato soup”? According to an experiment conducted by Dr. Brian Wansink of Cornell University, sales increase almost thirty percent when menu items are accompanied by a well-written description. Diners also gave these items more favorable feedback and felt more satisfied after eating them.

Here’s a menu that features the “gingered spring tomato bisque” mentioned above. Take a look at the item below it. Doesn’t “Char-grilled cold water lobster tail on herb spun angel hair pasta with a srirachi garlic vinaigrette” sound like a culinary experience in a way that “pasta with lobster” just doesn’t?

Menu Engineering and Your Business

These are only a small sampling of how menu engineering can change the way we order. But as a business owner, it’s important to think about whether any of these techniques can apply to your business as well. Can “good, better, best” pricing increase your revenue by helping your customers recognize the bargain they’re getting? Can a tempting description of your services on your website raise sales?

Finally, these clever applications of behavioral psychology should make you pause. In every industry, in every business, there are small details that are often overlooked. Yet, it’s the small details that lead to tangible, measurable results. Sometimes, significant improvements come from seemingly insignificant changes. After all, restaurateurs who put more thought into their menus generate more revenue. Take a few minutes to consider the “little things” in your industry — and how you can use these details to make your business  better and better.


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