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Chef Laura: Secrets of manipulative menus



Have you ever toured a Frank Lloyd Wright house?  Without your consent, his designs manipulate you at every turn. Each detail is strategic – some elements create functionality, others aesthetics, and some are just to mess with you.

At 5 feet 3 inches, I have no problem navigating a FLW designed home and have enjoyed visiting many from Scottsdale to Buffalo.  My 6-foot-5-inch father, however, is not a fan. 

Standard ceiling height for most homes is about 8 feet, but Wright designed 6-foot-2-inch doorways leading into rooms with 7-foot ceilings.  He rationalized it was for more efficient heating and cooling. 

But I have a hard time buying that from a 5-foot-8-inch man who was known for wearing capes and high heeled shoes (Frank Lloyd Wright, that is – not my father).  Part self-conscious of his stature and part egotistical, FLW actually wanted tall people to feel “uneasy” in his buildings.

Subconscious manipulation is all around us.  Most companies call this “marketing”.  One of the worst – or best? – offenders of subliminal marketing are restaurant menus. 

I don’t know if I’m breaking any rules of the SFSS (Secret Food Service Society), but I’m going to expose some subtle secrets so that you’ll never look at a menu the same way again.  Consider it one of those NBC’s public service announcements…the more you know.

Secret #1 – Stuck in the Middle

When you open a bi-fold menu, your eyes naturally go to the upper-middle right side.  You know where restaurants put their Stars?  Yup, you guessed it.  Stars are extremely popular and have a high contribution margin. They are usually a restaurant’s signature menu item.  To draw more eye appeal, sometimes they are bordered by a box, or special symbol.

Worst place on the menu?  Bottom left corner.  That’s where the Plow Horses end up.  These items are high in popularity but low in contribution margin. Plow horse menu items sell well but don’t significantly increase revenue, so that’s why they are hidden.

To solve the problem of a Puzzle (Puzzles are generally low in popularity and high in contribution margin), restaurants place those on the upper left, call them out on a table tent, or have their servers suggest them.  Often the servers have a contest to see who can sell the most of the nightly special, which is a fun way to solve a puzzle.

To round out the menu are the Dogs.  I know it’s not nice to make fun of dogs, especially in Colorado, but these items are low in both popularity and contribution.  They are difficult to sell and produce little profit when they do sell.  Sometimes you’ll find them on the back of the menu (which is probably the reason why they ended up in the dog house in the first place).  Once a restaurant is convinced a dish has gone to the dogs, they usually remove it completely.

Secret #2 – Mo Money Mo Problems

Remember when menus priced hamburgers for “$5.99”.  Nowadays you just see it listed as “6”.  Dollar symbols kill sales because they remind consumers that they are spending money. 

The extra “.99” is also visual clutter.  Another sneaky move is to decrease the point size of the price. Clean, simple and small – Frank Lloyd Wright would approve.

To prevent the menu from looking like a price list, menu designers embed the price right after the romance copy (the description of the dish).  When prices are placed in a vertical line, a no-no, customers can quickly scan for the cheapest option.

Secret #3 – Lazy Eye

“An eye is basically lazy. It will go to the easiest thing on a page,” says Gregg Rapp, the original Menu Engineer. 

Eyes are nearly always drawn to photography.  So pictures of food equals more sales, right?  Wrong.  Food photography works for fast food restaurants, but “you can’t use it on the high end, because it reminds us of Denny’s,” Rapp said.

Successful menus also use a legible font and stay consistent throughout.  Upper and lowercase letters flow and are easier to read than ALL CAPS. 

Secret #4 – Middle of the Road

An effective tactic, especially when selling wine, is the “Good, Better, Best” theory.  By listing three different bottles of Petite Sirah with three different price points, most patrons choose the one in the middle.  And that’s exactly what the restaurant wanted you to do! 

It makes you feel like you made a smart choice.  If they listed only two bottles, you’d be forced to advertise to your dinner date that you’re either a penny pincher or Daddy Warbucks.

Secret #5 – Napoleon Complex

Today, profitable “small plates” are prominently featured on menus.  These tempting tastes are cheaper than a full entrée, but they also subliminally encourage patrons to order several items, thus increasing the overall check average. 

And culinary artists can produce a trompe l’oeil as convincing as any French Baroque painter. This trick-the-eye technique, similar to Mr. Lloyd’s short doorways which make the room seem larger upon entry, never fails.  For example, an 8 ounce portion of soup in a standard cup looks adequate, but pour that same liquid volume into a large shallow bowl and sell it for double the price! 

Beyond the Menu

If you sell a service or product, maybe your “menu” is a brochure or a website?  By taking a cue from FLW and menu engineers, many of these strategic manipulations can be applied to your business – even if you don’t sell $6 burgers.

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Laura Cook Newman

Laura Cook Newman is a professional Chef and Training Manager for a Fortune 500 food manufacturer. She earned her chops at Johnson & Wales University, has an MBA in Marketing and hosts a blog for behind-the-scenes insights on the food service industry. Contact her at www.ThreeHotsAndaCot.net

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