What Lies Beneath a Restaurant Menu

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What Lies Beneath a Restaurant Menu

Illustration: Riya Rathod

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ver walked into one of those new, hip restaurants recommended by Instagram? The one whose name probably came from the unholy union of two words from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, that serves water in glass jars filled with mint leaves, and has furniture that was definitely made by some indigenous artisan in south India?

If your answer is yes, then you’ll have also noticed that once you pick up the menu, you’re presented with a tantalising spread of experiences that await your taste buds. You scan the artfully designed menu, give in to your cravings, and by the end of the meal you’ve gone from “I’ll just have a few bites,” to “Can you pack this up please?” What made you go to bed so full of food that you’re suddenly a bloated bag of gas? Man, how’d you play yourself sucka?

The answer lies with a secret society of people who’ve been around ever since restaurants decided they were going to serve experiences, not food. They’re the reason you order the “fillet of locally caught red snapper with fairy dust and unicorn poop” instead of the usual fish fuckery such as everyone’s favourite fish and chips or the generically grilled fish with some veggies on the side. This foodception is carried out through clever manipulation of language, an analysis of peoples reading patterns, and some amount of consumer psychology. This is the secret society of menu engineers.

To strike that balance between making a profit and not scaring customers off, one of the first steps that menu engineers suggest is getting rid of rupee signs or other currency symbols.

I can hear the IITians scoffing as they read this, but in reality, menu engineering is serious stuff. Menu engineers devoted to their craft spend time studying fine details such as the thickness of the paper a menu is printed on, the font, and even the blank spaces on a menu to ensure diners buy exactly what the restaurant wants them to buy. Rather than read menus from front to back, diners tend to scan them quickly. This means that a menu has a small amount of time to make a big impact. Restaurants can make their menus easier to scan by using clear section headings, easy-to-find dish titles, and other visual techniques. This optimisation of the menu is an elaborate ruse, and here’s how the menu engineers pull it off.

Like I mentioned before, a menu engineer’s job is to make you purchase an experience, not a meal. That’s why menu designers, engineers, and copywriters work hard to get diners’ taste buds tingling with phrasing that is appealing, appetising, and evocative. Dishes labelled with sensory descriptors such as “tender,” “succulent,” and “satin”; cultural/geographic terms like “Cajun” and “Italian”; and nostalgic terms like “home style,” “traditional,” and “grandma’s” will always do better than others. Humanising a dish takes it out of the realm of being a commodity.

Of course, because menu engineers don’t want to make you feel like you’re buying a commodity, pricing is one of the trickiest elements to get right on a menu. To strike that balance between making a profit and not scaring customers off, one of the first steps that menu engineers suggest is getting rid of rupee signs or other currency symbols. Any reference to currency reminds diners of the “pain” associated with spending money, and may lead them to place an order solely based on price rather than choosing menu items based on ingredients, quality, or what sounds most appealing.

Another related pricing trick that restaurants often work into their menus to distract customers from the prices is known as a “decoy.” This is the freshly caught grilled lobster dish that, for some reason, costs 4,000 bucks. A decoy is a menu item that seems outrageously expensive, but is there not necessarily because the restaurant expects it to sell, but rather to make other items look more reasonable.

So now you know how restaurants pull the wool over your eyes in order to get you to do exactly what they want. In other words, the reason you’re ordering the French fries with your beer isn’t because you’ve been conditioned to think beer and fries taste good, it’s because fries are one of the simplest, no-brainer recipes on the menu that come with a nice little profit margin, and a sneaky menu engineer won’t let you realise this while ordering them. All you’re going to be thinking about is the crunchy exterior and creamy interior, a hot French fry dipped in cool creamy aioli. Oh and guess what, chances are the menu has them listed as “House Fries”, which is apt considering the house always wins.

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