Menu Psychology

Happy New Year! We’re still here, just recovering from all those holidays and mulling over our resolutions. Mine is the same every year: cook. Last night, I reheated waffles left over from Christmas, so yay! Off to a strong start. I will celebrate at a restaurant tonight. (But I will spendthriftily save half my meal for lunch tomorrow like a good kid.)

Speaking of restaurants, Sarah was talking to me today about an article in The New York Times two weeks ago about "menu engineering." I found it so interesting. Some excerpts:

  • People like the names of mothers, grandmothers and other relatives on their menus. They are much more likely to buy Grandma’s zucchini cookies and Aunt Phyllis’s famous wedge salad.
  • A dollar sign is pretty much the worst thing you can put on a menu, particularly at a high-end restaurant.
  • 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.
  • If a restaurant wants to use prices that include cents, like $9.99 or $9.95 (without the dollar sign, of course),.95 is considered a “friendlier” price, whereas .99 is “cornier.”
  • Menu descriptions tend to fall into four categories: geographic labels like “Southwestern Tex-Mex salad,” nostalgia labels like “ye olde potato bread,” sensory labels like “buttery plump pasta” and brand names, like Jack Daniel’s sauce.

Hm. First of all, this reminds me of waitressing at a seafood restaurant on Cape Cod when I was seventeen. If a customer asked us what was in the fish and chips, we were instructed to respond, "It’s a white, flaky fish." If the customer pressed for details, we were supposed to say, "It’s a delicious, white, flaky fish." It was catfish, truth be told. In England, you can get arrested for a thing like this. Or at least for lying about it.

I’m not sure about putting grandma and Phyllis on the menu (they could have dirty hands or keep their birdcage in the kitchen, for all I know about these people), but I am definitely a  sucker for nostalgia. Ye olde potato bread? Uh, yes. I will have that fantastic item. (I’m probably in the minority in that I would take "poor man’s cod" over "delicious, flaky, white fish.") And I’m with the Cape tourists on catfish, a word that immediately conjures farmed fish and hairballs. That is a no.

Read the whole article here.