Menus may be steering you to help the restaurant’s bottom line

  • Tue May 20th, 2014 1:43pm
  • Life

By Jon Bauer Herald Writer

Decisions. Decisions.

Most of the time I don’t hem and haw too much over a restaurant menu, particularly when I’m hungry. But there are occasions when, even after narrowing the choice to a couple of items, I vacillate, blurting out the order to the wait person, then wondering if I should have gone with the salmon after all.

But I hadn’t considered how the menu might be influencing my decision.

An article in the May issue of Washington Restaurant, an industry trade magazine, gives restaurant owners a guide as to how to design menus, not only to make them more attractive and readable, but how to steer diners to specific menu items, particularly those that bring the most profit to the restaurant.

Among the article’s recommendations:

List those menu items that provide the restaurant with the highest profit margin — not necessarily the most expensive, but those with the greatest difference between price and cost to the restaurant — at the top and the bottom of a menu category. Eyes tend to drift to those spots first. Items that don’t generate as much profit for a restaurant should be buried in the middle.

Take a lesson from newspaper layout (see, we’re still relevant), and place the most profitable items at the top of the right-hand page. Again, that’s where eyes go first.

List the price right after the menu item’s description and in the same font. Putting the price off to the side allows diners to too easily compare prices and shop for a cheaper selection.

Highlight the money makers either by using different fonts or color — yellow, red and orange are “hunger colors” the article advises — or with a restaurant logo or other icon.

Include dollars and cents, a tip that has been used by retailers for years under the conventional wisdom that a $12.99 hamburger sounds cheaper than a $13 burger, the same way a $24,999 car sounds like a better deal than a $25,000 car.

Drop the dollar signs, apparently to dissuade the diner from thinking he or she is spending actual money.

Not all restaurants follow these menu guidelines, though more should at least try to make their menus as readable as possible and fix the spelling and punctuation errors. On principle, I’ll order the “chef’s special” but not the “chefs special,” because, well, too many chefs spoil the soup.

There’s nothing especially underhanded here, any more than listing the night’s special on the chalkboard or having the restaurant manager tell the wait staff to recommend a certain item to customers; the restaurant’s reason for being in business is to provide a good meal while making money.

But if you’re wondering why, in a moment of indecision you went with the lamb rather than the salmon, consider that as much thought might have gone into its presentation on the menu as it did on the plate.

Order Up is an occasional column of news and commentary about restaurants and dining in Snohomish County.