Sneaky restaurant tricks: Ten to watch out for

Restaurants are feeling the pinch in two directions. With money tight, consumers are cutting back on how often they dine out. Meantime, food costs more. Way more.

Egg prices have doubled in the last six months. Dairy, chicken, beer and bread crumb prices are all climbing higher. Even when the core commodity escapes the trend, packaged ingredients and other restaurant supplies are more expensive as the costs of transportation climb due to higher fuel prices.

When people do go out, they are ordering less. "Appetizer sales are down. Dessert sales can almost disappear," says Dan Simons, principal at Vucurevich Simons Advisory Group, a restaurant consulting firm. "And the most expensive items on the menu aren't sold as much."

Restaurants know there's a limit to how much they can raise prices without driving off already broke customers. So for now, many are looking for ways to raise prices and cut costs that won't be too obvious.

The next time you go out -- if you can afford to go out at all -- see if you can find your favorite restaurant working any of these old gimmicks. Read on and you may even learn some tricks you can use to stretch a buck in your kitchen at home:

Cut back on portions:

Restaurants normally spend between 25% and 40% of their budgets on food, according to Barry Brown, president of Profit Strategies Solutions, which sells software for restaurants to manage inventory and profitability.

So if they can make a smaller hamburger and still sell it for the same price, their profits go up. Milk shakes at family diners that could once be split three-ways may now truly be single serve. There are reports of some restaurants buying smaller plates so customers won't notice they have reduced portions and chefs won't be tempted to heap on food to make dishes look appealing.

Eric Arthur, president of Marketplace Management Group, a restaurant procurement company in Collierville, Tenn., expects to see more junior-sized portions offered on menus. "You might have a shot-glass-sized dessert. It gives the customer the opportunity to say 'I can still have some dessert' and it gives the owner the opportunity to still add a dollar to the bill," says Arthur.

"Americans have been kind of spoiled. We have supersized everything," Arthur says. "That's not necessarily the way it is in the rest of the world."

Cut back on the most expensive ingredients:

Maybe the recipe calls for five sticks of butter. In good times, the baker adds six because she thinks it tastes better. But in tough times, she'll stick to five (or worse, substitute a stick or two of margarine in the recipe). The chef may prefer to load up on shrimp when preparing his signature gumbo, but he knows his job depends on restricting the number to four or five per serving.