Time was when you walked into a restaurant, browsed the menu, chose something you fancied and ordered it. Oh for the pleasures of those innocent times! In those halcyon days, every item on the menu was presented equally and fairly. Called by its name, possibly with a short description and barely an adjective in sight. Inexpensive food was cheapish and expensive ingredients meant higher prices. Simple.
How times have changed. Dark forces have been at work in MenuLand, people with ulterior motives have been fiddling with the rules. Their influence can be hard to spot and they are not always in the best interests of the consumer. Today, when you walk into a restaurant or fast-food outlet your innocent decision is being guided by a veritable phalanx of experts and their merchandising techniques. All dishes are equal but some are more equal than others. They are determined to guide your choice.
But why would anyone want to manipulate your decision-making at the point of purchase? Well, there are three simple reasons; firstly to draw your attention to one of the best things on our menu – “we really want you to enjoy it”. Secondly, and a tad less altruistic, this dish is easy to make, it won’t mess up our kitchen and we’re likely to be able to serve it to you in good time. Lastly, and this is where the dark forces are really at work, this dish gives us the greatest profit – so we want to sell loads of it. So much so that we will give it every possible assistance to keep it flying out of the kitchen.
Set out below is our radical exposé of the art of Menu Engineering. Consider it as a public information bulletin, not a call to arms suggesting that there are some clever tricks you might like to try at home. God forbid!
In truth scientific investigation has revealed that customers are stressed when making a menu choice, trying to look confident and worldly. In this time of stress they may be genuinely grateful for a spot of advice. In the absence of a friendly waiter to ask “what would you recommend?” (remember that his or her answer is likely to be a lie – it’s probably past its best in the kitchen) the customer will be grateful for a menu, or a ‘Table Talker’ which gives them a clue – nudges them in the right direction.
This is Menu Engineering.
To keep things simple let’s focus on ten things that will really help your customers to make the best decision:
No.1 The Signature Item
It’s so good we’ve put our name on it. One of the oldest tricks in the marketing manual, up there with ‘New and Improved’.
See how the Rainforest Café, jungle themed restaurant for tourists and young people, promote their Signature Items with an icon in the Food Guide and major highlighting on the menu itself. Easy – “I’ll have one of those”. Not bad with the Signature Rainforest Classic Burger kicking in at £16.75.
No.2 ‘The Table Talker’
Not sure what wine to choose? Let this little piece of standing-up cardboard give you a clue. And no, it will not be the cheapest wine on the list. Also used to pre-sell the pudding menu to you throughout the meal, making it less likely you’ll just ask for coffee. Illustrated here.
‘Table Talker’ from YO! Sushi
On-Counter ‘Table Talker’ at Vapiano (a very big international chain)
No.3 The old ‘stick it in a highlighted box’ trick
This is exactly what it says. There will be a plain list of perfectly pleasant dishes and then, right in the middle, in a box or surrounded in flashing lights, is the dish we would really like you to buy today. That’s all there is to it.
Menu from the venerable Soho institution Quo Vadis
No.4 Choice – what choice?
Historically a long menu suggested knowledge of the subject: a degree of specialism. Actually it’s just a source of stress for the customer. Increasingly menus are getting shorter and shorter. Just a lobster and a burger for example.
Take this popular casual dining brand, Itsu, currently marching across the country. See if you can count how many items you can choose from.
McDonald’s and others have been doing this for years but this seems more elegant, less manipulative – these are all the dishes you need to enjoy our delicious health-giving cuisine.
Overhead menu from cult fast food eatery Leon
No.5 The rise and the rise of The Food Snap
No we’re not talking about the fad of taking photos of your food and posting it on the web. Or even the excellent website http://pohtpof.tumblr.com/ which celebrates photos of people taking photos of their food. Yes indeed. This is the trend towards presenting photos of food to save us from having to read at all. Especially where guests are in a hurry or from overseas. Remember we last saw this at Disneyland in Paris.
This trend is really growing right now – and in the most respectable establishments. Consider placing a photo of a Signature item next to a written description of other menu items. Slam dunk!
No.6 The power of the adjective
I think I might know what I want to eat. I just need to validate my decision. Just like a Tripadvisor review but you get to write this one yourself. The magical collection of delicious words painting a picture of, possibly, the most delicious dish you will ever taste. More adjectives are better. Fewer adjectives leave more to guesswork. And guessing means stress. You get it.
No.7 Beyond the Meal Deal – as easy as 1, 2, 3
Time was when The Meal Deal was the smartest kid on the block. Not any more. Now its all about making it ‘easy peasy’. As easy as 1, 2, 3. All you need to do is: do this, then that, and top it off with this and you’ll go home happy. Assume your customers are ready to be led or, possibly, not as bright as you thought.
Menu from YO! Sushi
No.8 Page placement
Another subject of much research. Which position on the page gets the most attention? In a supermarket we know exactly how the customer’s eyes move across a shelf and products are placed (they even pay to be placed) in the right ‘hot spot’. The same can be said with menu layout.
Take this opening page from Planet Hollywood. Guess which starter they would most like to share with you? Yes of course – the £19 sharing platter.
The top is good, the centre is better, right is better than left. It’s all about geometry. Try the placement of the sparkling wine on the Nandos Menu. Inspired! Glass of bubbly anyone?
No.9 Decoy or anti-merchandising
In the same way that restaurants can promote preferred items they can also discriminate against others. These are the so-called “decoy items”. They make the menu look comprehensive, they might even be priced too high but their real purpose is to guide your choice to those alpha type signature items. Clever.
No.10 Putting all your tanks on the lawn
Better than relying on the menu to do all of the sales work for you, how about lining up all of your merchandising hardware. There are five you can assemble for a full on assault.
- Promote preferred items in pop-ups on your website
- Use promotional graphics and posters to shamelessly plug your latest menu creation
- Flaunt it in your menu using any of the tricks outlined above
- Shout it out on the table with a ‘Table Talker’
- And finally, encourage (even incentivise) your staff to encourage guests at the point of purchase.
Your customers will be happy for your help and your kitchen will be happy doing fewer things better.