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food Restaurant Menus Are Designed To Trick You Into Spending More Money

Restaurant menus, from fancy sit-down places to fast food restaurants and even take-outs, are full of tricks to increase sales. But once you notice the visual elements that make up a menu, you'll never be able to unsee them

Menu design and organization affects customers' spending. This often includes placing special menu items in certain visual fields,ALISON DOMINGUEZ

A menu is so many things: calling card, salesman, a fantastical story that takes you on a culinary journey around the world.

On second glance, however, you may notice that restaurant menus are not as straightforward as you think. What might appear as a simple guide is actually riddled with sleights of hand to get you to shell out more money. And I'm not just talking about sit-down restaurants and Michelin-starred tasting menus. These tricks are also common at fast food restaurants and your favorite takeout spots.

In fact, some restaurants even hire menu consultants to help them design their menus using all the basic tenets of menu psychology so you spend more money.

Menu Psychology 101

As the name suggests, menu psychology is the study of how menu design and organization affects customers' spending. This often includes placing special menu items in certain visual fields, like boxes or front and center. But ultimately a good menu is only truly successful when its design increases customer loyalty.

“For most restaurants, the goal is to drive repeat business. That means the top goal of a restaurant is for customers to leave feeling satisfied," says Dr. Jason Buhle, who lectures in the master's program of applied psychology at USC. "If a restaurant encourages a diner to purchase more than they want, they may overeat or feel bad about wasting food or money. If a bill is higher than a customer intended, they will surely factor that final impression in when choosing a restaurant next time.”

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Arguably, we make more decisions about food than really anything else, so the power a menu can hold over us can be immense. Much like how we are influenced by the advertisements we see each day, so too are we influenced by the menus we browse.

"Restaurants should always remember a menu is a form of advertising," says Buhle. "Good advertising helps customers make choices that are better aligned with their wants and needs."

What are those wants and needs? To not become overwhelmed with options (a.k.a. the paradox of choice), to know we are making the right choice, and to feel like we're getting a good deal. But in order to stimulate all of these cues, restaurant menus play some tricks on us

Spotting Menu Psychology in the Wild

Once you notice the visual elements that make up a menu, you'll never be able to unsee them. Here are just a few common practices out there:

Put it in a box. You might think that writing fancy titles for dishes and changing pricing alone is the most pivotal part of a menu's design. But more often than not, it’s the positioning of the dish on the menu with eye movement in mind, like putting it in the center of a menu or in a box. This will influence a higher likelihood of a customer choosing a higher priced item.

(Don't) show me the money. "The goal of restaurants is to put the food first and the price second in the customer’s mind," says Buhle. "One way they can do this is by literally listing the food first and the price second." Along with pricing items as a whole number and removing dollar signs entirely from a menu ("9." or "9—" instead of "$9.00"), this will soften how intimidating a higher price item might appear on the menu. Menu consultants and researchers also say that prices that end in $.99 also "tend to signify value but not quality."

Photos? No thanks. Illustrations? Yes, please. Photos of food are a powerful way to stoke hunger in diners, but there are things to be wary of. “Poor photos may elicit disgust, photos of fake food may result in an unpleasant ‘uncanny valley’ reaction," says Buhle. "And misleading photos may lead to a loss in consumer trust." This is also why you might notice more illustrated food pictures—charming cartoonish cows, freshly picked carrots, or sketched wine bottles—on more upscale restaurants' menus.

Expensive dishes go at the top. This is due to the "primacy effect," which refers to how we often zero-in on the first item of a list and ignore the rest. Diners don't truly "read" a menu; they more often scan it, so the expensive items at the top will make the other items look like a good deal by comparison.

Keep it exclusive. Fewer dishes to choose from is better when it comes to assuring a restaurant-goer of the establishment's quality, which increases diner trust. According to researchers, “60 percent to 70 percent of [a restaurant's] sales came from fewer than 18-24 menu items.”

Banner blindness. “One technique restaurants should be wary to use is banners," says Buhle. "In usability testing, we frequently see a phenomena we call ‘banner blindness,’ where users skip over any content in banners. When asked why, they say they assume it was an advertisement that would not contain any information relevant to them.” Keep ignoring those banners, diners!

Pluck those nostalgia strings. Ever notice when dishes are called something like "Uncle Grandma's Chicken Pot Pie"? This is very much intentional. According to menu engineers, “People like the names of mothers, grandmothers and other relatives on their menus, and research shows they are much more likely to buy, say, Grandma’s zucchini cookies."

If these tricks are starting to make you feel spooked, rest assured that there's only so much hold they can have over a you. “Menu design and placement of items on the menu can influence the customers’ decision," says Professor Dave Pavesic, who teaches in Georgia State University's hospitality administration program. "It will not influence customers to purchase items that they do not want.”

So, don't worry if you don't like grilled octopus. You're likely not going to be swayed enough to order a $48 octopus special, no matter how it's written on the menu.



Mackenzie Filson is a food writer and contributing digital food producer at Delish. Her favorite ice cream flavor is chocolate-pine and if wine was an astrological sign she'd be a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. She's never met a bag of Spicy Sweet Chili Doritos she didn't eat in one sitting.