Restaurants have ways to get customers to pay more money, buy more food and choose more profitable selections. Knowing their methods, however, can defuse the influence of a menu and maybe save diners some money. At the very least, it can give people something to chat about with their date.
Maggie Zhang at Business Insider recounted 11 psychological tricks used by restaurants. For example, Zhang says most menus do not use dollar signs — using "1.99" instead of "$1.99."
"According to research from the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration," she writes, "guests given a menu without dollar signs spent significantly more than those who received a menu with them. Even if the prices were written out with words instead of numbers, such as 'ten dollars,' guests spent less money because it still triggered the negative feelings associated with paying."
Sarah Kershaw at the New York Times explains further: "In the world of menu engineering and pricing, a dollar sign is pretty much the worst thing you can put on a menu, particularly at a high-end restaurant. Not only will it scream 'Hello, you are about to spend money!' into a diner's tender psyche, but it can feel aggressive and look tacky. So can price formats that end in the numeral 9, as in $9.99, which tend to signify value but not quality, menu consultants and researchers say."
Caity Weaver at Gawker shared a snapshot of TGI Friday's menu clearly showing the use of a dollar sign. TGI Friday's apparently uses other ways to tempt customers: The description in the photo describes "Oreo® Madness," with "hand-crumbled crust and premium Ghirardelli® sauce that will drive you crazy."
Zhang talks about using "extremely descriptive language" along with brand names as effective tools to whet customers' appetites. "The more adjectives, the better," Zhang writes.
Using complex, exotic or unknown words in describing a menu item makes the food sound more complex and valuable, writes Kristin Wong at Brokepedia, so customers will pay more for it.
Michael Kristoff, president and creative director of a Nashville, Tennessee, design firm, says the third item listed on a menu is "generally the most selected item" so restaurants put the most profitable item in that spot, according to an article by Carol Vinzant at DailyFinance.
Kristoff says restaurants shouldn't have the prices line up in a column either, or else customers will shop by price.
Stefanie Tuder at ABC News says studies show people look at the upper right hand of a menu first, so that is where the most expensive and profitable item will usually be placed. The least expensive items are usually in the opposite lower left corner.
Menus also have "anchors," Tuder says — a "ridiculously expensive item" that makes the other items next to it look less expensive in comparison.
"Ever wondered why a particular item on the menu is decorated with a box and pattern?" asks Mione Brackenborough at Money Magpie. "The menu might say that these are 'signature dishes' or 'favourites,' but they are usually profitable too! The restaurant wants them to stand out so that they are ordered by you to make them money."
Laura Northrup at Consumerist sums up what knowing all these tricks can do: "Selling you food is the entire point of restaurants, so we don't begrudge them that, but it's still good to be aware of these tricks and how they work."