Menu design tricks to get you to spend more

“When you open that menu, we know that you’re going to order an entree. My goal is getting the person to look for the more profitable items.” — Choice architect (or “menu engineer”) Gregg Rapp

From Time magazine:

Rapp recommends that menus be laid out in neat columns with unfussy fonts. The way prices are listed is very important. “This is the No. 1 thing that most restaurants get wrong,” he explains. “If all the prices are aligned on the right, then I can look down the list and order the cheapest thing.” It’s better to have the digits and dollar signs discreetly tagged on at the end of each food description. That way, the customer’s appetite for honey-glazed pork will be whetted before he sees its cost.

Also important is placement. On the basis of his own research and existing studies of how people read, Rapp says the most valuable real estate on a two-panel menu (one that opens like a magazine) is the upper-right-hand corner. That area, he says, should be reserved for more profitable dishes since it is the best place to catch–and retain–the reader’s gaze.

Cheap, popular staples–like a grilled-chicken sandwich or a burger–should be harder to locate. Rapp likes to make the customer read through a mouthwatering description of seared ahi tuna before he finds them. “This is akin to the grocery store putting the milk in the back,” he says. “You have to walk by all sorts of tempting, high-priced items to get to it.”

The adjectives lavished on a dish can be as important as the names of the ingredients. What would you rather eat, plain grilled chicken or flame-broiled chicken with a garlic rub? Scrambled eggs or farm-fresh eggs scrambled in butter? “Think ‘flavors and tastes,’” Rapp says, repeating a favorite mantra. “Words like crunchy and spicy give the customer a better idea of what something will be like.” Longer, effusive descriptions should be reserved for signature items.

NBC’s Today show recently produced a segment on the psychology behind menu design featuring Rapp. An archived version of the video is here. (It runs about 4 minutes and 30 seconds.)

Hat tip: Alan Reifman.

Tags: ,

  • Mike

    If all the prices are on the right hand side, do people really scan the list for the cheapest one? Somehow I doubt this. People like to complain about the recession, gas prices, etc., but I haven’t seen anyone going into Ruth’s Chris and just getting a burger.

  • foo

    Plus, not everyone likes the same kinds of food. So for those of us who don’t eat much fish, well, that “mouth-watering description” *isn’t*. I know what I want before I get to most restaurants. And price *is* a concern – no way would I even enter a Ruth’s Chris, let alone order a burger there, while unemployed. My one meal out a week is reserved for local favorites where I know the owner and they know me and I can get a great meal for under 10 dollars and still have a wonderful time with friends.

  • Emily

    Yes, I scan the menu for the cheapest items. If any of those are appealing, I order those. I find menus that hide the less expensive items extremely annoying, but I’ve never thought about whether or not I spend more at those restaurants. However, I also hate going out to eat – the food is rarely as good as what I cook, the restaurant is invariably too loud and far away from home and requires a babysitter or the distraction of my children, and costs much more than cooking at home. Perhaps I would spend more if I were expecting to enjoy the experience?

  • Troy

    I own a restaurant and maybe I’m doing things wrong but I have the pricing down the right side of the col. But I make sure I use a nice easy on the eyes font and give accurate and mouth watering descriptions, which does work!

    I’m a mexican restaurant so there is no real expensive items on the menu as mexican is expected to be cheap! (which anoys the heck out of me) Any got some nice ideas from this artical. So thanks!

  • John

    @Mike I think the whole point of this is how menu design can nudge someone to make a more expensive choice than they may have been initially willing to. Someone visiting Ruth Chris is already likely to spend more than someone visiting Applebees. There is much more incentive to nudge people towards more profitable items when margins are much lower.

  • Dan

    I knew the price trick, but I never knew about the right panel real estate. Good stuff!

  • Franny

    Wow, this is a very helpful article. I agree that you have to put the prices in inconspicuous places so that the customers will not focus on them and focus on the food instead. I also read from Menu Prices and Recommendations that you also need to give creative names to dishes, not just their ordinary names.