If you’re like most people, you eat out on a fairly regular basis.
One Gallup poll found that 61 percent of Americans visit dine-in restaurants at least once per week, and in 2016 alone, U.S. dining establishments brought in a hefty $782 billion in sales. That’s a lot of dough (or clams or cabbage or…hey, we’re getting hungry).
But while you’re perusing the menu and munching on free bread, you’re being subtly motivated to spend more money—and choose foods you aren’t really that interested in eating. As it turns out, restaurateurs use some surprisingly savvy marketing techniques to sell their products.
We’re not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing, but if you’re headed out to your favorite sushi spot or burger joint, here are a few crucial things to keep in mind.
Look closely at the menu and you might notice something missing.
If you’re at a suitably fancy restaurant, you’ll see a number under each item, but you won’t find a dollar sign. That’s because menu designers see dollar signs as “pain points,” which could potentially affect the customer’s experience (and the restaurant’s profit).
There’s some research to back that up. A 2009 study from Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration found that “guests given the numeral-only menu spent significantly more than those who received a menu with prices showing a dollar sign or those whose menus had prices written out in words.”
Diners don’t like thinking about the money they’re spending, and those nasty dollar signs seem to discourage us from trying high-dollar menu items. You won’t find dollar signs on many menus; you will, however, find plenty of beautifully named foods.
That’s not just because the chef is extremely passionate about their work—conventional wisdom holds that descriptive menu items sell better than normally named food items (Cornell Food and Brand Lab’s research seems to back that up, but that lab has come under fire for some of their methods).
That makes sense; would you rather eat a cheeseburger or a “cheddar Angus burger served on a toasted brioche bun?” If you had a choice between “golden cornmeal nuggets brushed with locally sourced sea salt and a light dusting of cheese” or Cheetos, which would you pick?
Of course, descriptive terminology only works within certain limits.
“When we describe specials, we’re trained to be as descriptive as possible without actually lying or using too many strong adjectives,” Amanda, a 30-year-old former waitress at a St. Louis restaurant, tells Urbo.
“Customers don’t really like it if you use words like ‘amazing’ or ‘delicious,’ since it seems like you’re trying to lead them to a conclusion. But if you can list off all of the ingredients in a dish and make them sound appetizing, then yeah, you’re probably going to sell some extra food.”
Naturally, those flowery descriptions also appear on the menu, where they (hopefully) entice customers into spending a few extra dollars.
By the way, there’s an entire industry focused on the art and science of menu design.
Consultants—sometimes called “menu engineers,” which seems a bit pretentious—have convinced major brands like Huddle House to use a variety of tactics to improve profits without changing prices. That might mean removing dollar signs, putting dotted lines around expensive items, or adding white space to make a particular dish stand out.
That doesn’t mean that all of the engineers’ suggestions are effective. One San Francisco State University study showed that customers read menus from top to bottom, left to right—not focusing on a “sweet spot” in the upper-right quadrant of the menu, as menu designers had previously insisted.
“The restaurant industry has been piggybacking off past research,” said Sybil Yang, the researcher who directed the study. “It’s like a bad rumor that just kept perpetuating.”
That basket of free bread comes with strings attached.
Not literal strings, of course—we’re pretty sure that’d be some sort of health code violation.
Today I actually googled “Restaurants that give free bread” and that’s how I’m deciding on dinner.
— Lyz Khalifa 🌵 (@lyzigras) July 7, 2018
But while restaurants likely give out bread because it’s traditional for certain types of cuisine, there are a few other reasons for those cost-free carbs. For starters, by being generous with customers, restaurants encourage customers to be generous with them (ideally by ordering more food and leaving sizable tips).
“Bread’s pretty easy to provide. It’s cheap, most people like it, and it seems like something really special, if you do it right,” Amanda says. “Nobody really fills up completely on bread, either, and it gives them something to do while they’re waiting 20 minutes for their entrees. It’s pretty much a no-brainer—if you’ve got a decent restaurant, you’re offering bread.”
There’s also some evidence that high-carb foods can stimulate hunger by peaking insulin levels, although that’s probably not as much of a factor. After all, stuffing your body with breadsticks surely won’t make you order extra hot wings.
Nearly every high-end restaurant uses the same basic lighting tactics.
“From a psychological point of view, one of the key aspects to a restaurant’s design is the lighting,” restaurant interior designer Tom Strother told The Independent in 2017. “It has to be soft and flattering to make guests feel comfortable so that they are confident and relaxed and enjoy their stay in the restaurant. We tend to do this through soft ambient lighting to complement the more targeted architectural lighting and also to suit the time of day.”
The goal of good lighting is to make guests feel comfortable. In bright lights, imperfections tend to come out—it’s the same reason you think you look absolutely horrific under fluorescent lights.
We asked Amanda whether she’d ever overheard restaurant owners talking about the lighting.
“This is another no-brainer to me,” she says. “Soft lights make everything better. It’s just important to keep them bright enough that servers can see where they’re going. If you’re constantly tripping and spilling plates of pasta on your customers, you’re not going to have a very successful restaurant.”
In other words, restaurants thrive on efficiency, so functionality always comes first. Functional lighting—candles to help the guests read menus, overhead lamps to draw attention to the salad bar, and things of that nature—help to fill in the gaps.
Some restaurants also carefully construct their playlists to get diners to spend.
Music plays a huge role in establishing the atmosphere of a restaurant. If you walk into a Chinese place that’s blaring pop radio hits, you’ll probably feel slightly out of place; if that same business is playing traditional Chinese music, you’ll likely feel more relaxed. Pay close attention, though, and you might notice that most high-end restaurants play classical music. That’s by design.
according to ivan pavlov, when a biologically potent stimulus (i.e. your mac and cheese) is paired with a previously neutral stimulus (i.e. the classical music played at your restaurant) you get a conditioned response (i.e. my mouth watering)
— tala (@tawlaaa) July 11, 2018
A study from the Universities of Leicester and Surry found that music had a significant effect on the bill. When classical music was played in the background, diners spent an average of more than $31.84 (£24 GBP) per person on food and drinks. Pop music brought in around $29.18 per person, while playing no music at all brought in a mere $28.79. Unfortunately, researchers didn’t test the effect of Pantera’s seminal 1992 album Vulgar Display of Power on sales.
Those might not seem like dramatic differences, but multiplied by hundreds of diners per week, it quickly adds up. Obviously, if you’re running a classy restaurant, classical music makes sense (and cents).
And about that “no fish on Mondays” thing…
A famous old piece of culinary advice: Don’t order fish on Mondays. The logic is simple: Restaurants don’t typically source seafood over the weekend, so if you order fish on a Monday, you’ll end up with a slimy halibut or an overripe trout.
The good news is that it’s no longer true. This comes from the late Anthony Bourdain, who created the rule in his 1999 memoir Kitchen Confidential. Bourdain later retracted it, noting that it’s obsolete thanks to changes in the global food supply chain.
“All of our fish arrived frozen, anyway, and it tasted fine,” Amanda says. “Maybe that’s good advice if you live near the ocean or something.”
Depending on the restaurant, that “daily special” might not be worth your time.
As chef Gordon Ramsay reportedly told The Daily Mail, the purpose of a special is to get rid of extra food.
“Specials are there to disappear throughout the evening,” the reality star told the paper.
It seems to make sense; if you’re running a restaurant and you have a bunch of, say, catfish, you can either throw it away or run a special to get rid of it. However, in some cases, the special truly is…well, special.
“I’ve heard that ‘don’t buy the special’ thing before, and I think it’s mostly bogus,” Amanda said. “Some restaurants just try to get rid of old inventory through the specials, I’m sure, but at an upscale restaurant, that’s not what’s happening. The chef’s probably trying something out before adding it to the regular menu, or maybe he has a limited supply of some seasonal ingredient.”
“The special isn’t always the best value, but if you eat [at a certain restaurant] regularly and you like the rest of the menu, go ahead and try it.”
How can you tell if you’re in one of those upscale restaurants?
“Ask how long they’ll have the special,” Amanda says. “If it’s a daily or weekly thing, it’s likely legitimate. If your server can’t answer—well, there’s your answer. There’s nothing ‘special’ about that sort of special.”