Sneaky ways restaurants use menus to entice you to spend more

While you may not know what you're going to order before you sit down at a restaurant, chances are the items you end up choosing aren't entirely up to your inner cravings.

Whether it's a fast-food joint or high-end steakhouse, restaurants of all ilks employ various tricks of the trade to get you to buy more and spend more. But savvy diners don't have to blindly fall victim to these tactics. They just need to know what to watch out for before opening the menu.

"There is very much an art to the whole practice," said Gordon Drysdale, who is part of an ownership group that operates Pizza Antica restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Not surprisingly, restaurants design their menus with up-selling in mind. They'll put the highest profit items in the upper right corner, which is the first place that people tend to look, or they'll put pricey signature items in boxes or use buzzwords to grab a person's attention.

Chain restaurants have long employed such tactics, says Blair Chancey, editor of QSR Magazine, which publishes information on the quick-service and fast casual restaurant business. Chains know that filling menu boards with too much information confuses customers and slows down the line. That's why they create prearranged "value" meals that include en entree, a side and a drink. Basically, customers don't have to make many decisions at all. To simplify the process even further, the meals are pictured and given numbers (Value Meal #2, for instance). Not only does this help the line move faster, but it also encourages customers to order more than they would have had they ordered the items individually.

At higher-end restaurants, the tricks get a little more sophisticated. In fact, restaurants even hire "menu engineers" to create menus designed to bring in bigger profits.Gregg Rapp, a menu engineer for 27 years (pictured left), as well as some other industry experts spoke with WalletPop about what diners should look for the next time they go out to dinner.

Watch the placement

Just as grocery stores put pricier items on the center shelves where they are directly in your line of sight, menu writers often put the highest profit meals in the upper right corner of a menu where the eye naturally goes, says Rapp. The goal isn't to rip anyone off, he says, but to lead them to more expensive meals that they'll enjoy. "The restaurant's goal is to not only get you to come in today, but to come back over and over and over," he says.

Is there a dollar sign?

The way a menu item's price is listed can also impact a diner's choices -- and restaurants are well aware of it. People tend to spend more if the price on a menu is portrayed without a dollar sign or the word "dollars," according to a study by a researcher at Cornell University and the Culinary Institute of America that WalletPop wrote about in May. The study found that eliminating references to the dollar on a menu reduced the "pain of paying" in a diner's mind. So seeing 20 next to an item on the menu is perceived as less expensive than $20.

Restaurants have also learned to steer clear of "market price" items. Since most customers don't bother to ask what that price is, they often don't order it, says Rapp. The same goes for liquor prices. "[Diners will] order more of something they know the price on," he says. "And they won't ask the price of something because it's a little embarrassing."

Don't fall for trendy buzzwords

Try not to be seduced by "sexy" descriptors or ingredients, such as "heirloom tomatoes" or "truffles." Restaurants use these buzzwords to gain diners' attentions and boost their bills, says Drysdale. On the menu at Drysdale's restaurant, for example, is truffle mashed potatoes. The dish costs 15 cents more to make than the non-truffle variety of mashed potatoes, but the restaurant tacks $1 more onto the price of the dish.

"You can sure get that bill going up quick," says Marlene Parrish, a restaurant consultant and critic in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Prix fixe menus aren't always a good deal

Much like the so-called "value" meals offered at fast food chains, diners falsely perceive the prix fixe as a way to save, says Rafi Mohammed, a pricing expert who helps restaurants and other businesses determine prices. Diners should be careful not to spend more on the set meal than they would have had they ordered a la carte, he says.

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Reach him at
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