Tricks of the Restaurant Trade: 7 Ways Menus Make You Spend
I am totally proud. My younger son Ezra recently graduated from the CIA. Not the government spy agency but the Culinary Institute of America. Based in Hyde Park, N.Y., it trains chefs and restaurant managers, and according to its website is “recognized as the world’s premier culinary college with an industry-wide reputation for excellence.” I hope so, because, over the years, we paid a lot of tuition.
Ezra’s education, however, included mastering some skills almost as surreptitious as those employed by a secret agent. Example: Menu engineering, the topic of his honors thesis.
“The menu is the heart of the restaurant. It embodies the restaurant’s demographics, concept, physical factors and personality,” Ezra wrote in solid prose that is an obvious genetic inheritance from his mother. But don’t kid yourself. A menu, he confided to me in an exclusive interview, is also a sales vehicle, and many restaurants — smart ones — use it to get you to eat right. And, we’re not talking about your health, but about their profits.
Restaurant dishes generally divide up four groups, says Ez. First come stars — popular items for which diners are willing to pay much more than the dishes cost to make. Example: penne with vodka sauce. Plowhorses, are popular but less profitable items, like steak. Puzzlers are high-profit items that are tough to sell, say, sweetbreads. Finally, there are dogs that not many people like and aren’t profitable. Why they are on anybody’s menu, I’m not sure. Clever menu engineering exists to steer you to stars and puzzlers, to spend as much as possible and to enjoy doing it. After all, restaurateurs want repeat business.
There’s nothing wrong with any of that. Nevertheless, before you order your next meal, you might want to be aware of these common menu ploys.
- Amy Levin-Epstein
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.