William Poundstone, author of the new book, Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It), recently told New York Magazine how to dissect the marketing tricks built into restaurant menus.
“A star is the name for a popular, high-profit item—in other words, an item for which customers are willing to pay a good deal more than it costs to make. A puzzle is high-profit but unpopular; a plowhorse is the opposite, popular yet unprofitable. Consultants try to turn puzzles into stars, nudge customers away from plowhorses, and convince everyone that the prices on the menu are more reasonable than they look.”
Poundstone uses the menu from the popular restaurant Balthazar in New York City’s Soho district to illustrate these ideas.
That’s the prime spot where diners’ eyes automatically go first. Balthazar uses it to highlight a tasteful, expensive pile of seafood. Generally, pictures of food are powerful motivators but also menu taboos—mostly because they’re used extensively in lowbrow chain restaurants. This black and white illustration “is as far as a restaurant of this calibre can go, and it’s used to draw attention to two of the most expensive orders,” Poundstone says.
2. The Anchor
The main role of that very expensive Le Balthazar platter is to make everything else near it look like a relative bargain, Poundstone says.
3. Right Next Door
At a mere $70, the smaller seafood platter next to Le Balthazar seems like a deal, though there’s no sense of how much food you’re getting. It’s an indefinite comparison that also feels like an indulgence — a win-win for the restaurant.
4. In The Vicinity
The restaurant’s high-profit dishes tend to cluster near the anchor. Here, it’s more seafood at prices that seem comparatively modest.
5. Columns Are Killers
Restaurant marketing consultants warn that it’s a big mistake to list prices in a straight column. Customers will go down and choose from the cheapest items. Menu planners are told to omit dollar signs, decimal points, and cents. It’s not that customers can’t check prices, but most will follow whatever subtle cues are provided.
6. The Benefit Of Boxes
“A box draws attention and, usually, orders. A really fancy box is better yet. The fromage (cheeses) at the bottom of the menu are probably high-profit puzzles.”
7. Menu Siberia
That’s where low-margin dishes that the regulars like end up. The examples here are the easy-to-miss (and relatively inexpensive) burgers.
A regular trick, it’s when the same dish comes in different sizes. Because “you never know the portion size, you’re encouraged to trade up,” Poundstone says. “Usually the smaller size is perfectly adequate.”
Excerpted from Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It) published by Hill & Wang. © 2010 by William Poundstone.
Fascinating! And here we think a menu is just a listing of what’s cooking in the restaurant kitchen. This is pretty sophisticated marketing however – e.g. you’d see this in high-end establishments that are able to afford to hire consultants like the author of this book, but the odd thing is: now that I’ve read this piece, I’m already curious to go back to our family’s favorite neighborhood places just to see how their menus are laid out, too.
It makes sense – when you do a double take because of the high price of an item, the 2nd-highest price item right next to it can tend to look like a bargain. It’s all relative.
Very good article – thanks for sharing this with us. I’ve just started subscribing to your posts – and I look forward to each updated posting.
No offense meant to the author of this book, but I believe that most people (or is it just me?) that go to a restaurant for a meal just want to order what they like to eat. Period.
I honestly do not believe that I have ever been “tricked” into ordering something I don’t want to order just because it’s described in the upper right hand corner of the menu!
Can this really be true? I do not think so.
I love your website because it really makes us think, even when we may not agree with what we read! Thank you.
This sounds complex but it is actually so simple – and it does work. Newspapers do the same thing – there are “preferred” locations on the front page that draw readers’ eyes first compared to other locations.
I like the concept of putting a crazy expensive item next to the 2nd most expensive. I have done exactly this when making ordering decisions at restaurants – shy away from the very most pricey, often go to a price point just below that one. Hmmmm…..
Thanks for this – always something of interest here on your site. Appreciate it very much.
Very interesting. Marketing comes in all shapes and sizes and restaurant addressess, I guess.
I can’t believe that my neighbourhood cafe actually uses these marketing techniques to ‘get’ me to order their ‘high end’ bowls of chili. I order what I like – I barely pay attention to the menu, the columns, the boxes. In fact, I rarely even get to reading the menu – sometimes the chalkboard with today’s special helps me make up my mind before I even sit down. This author would say that the chalkboard is somehow a subliminal marketing device. IT’S A CHALKBOARD!
This book is an example of how much money some retailers/businesses have to throw around at these marketing consultants.
As always, you have given us thought-provoking topics here. Great water cooler conversation guaranteed!
We were just talking about this subject last night while out for dinner at our favorite place. We were noticing how some things on the menu are buried and invisible, while others seemed to pop off the menu at us. This is very interesting stuff – well done. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.
I’m a brand new subscriber – I really enjoy your website.
This makes sense to me. Over the years my wife and I have been to some (expensive) restaurants where the menu given to her is WITHOUT any prices at all (I’m guessing so she won’t be influenced by the price!) But she is unable to order without sneaking a peak at MY menu first, to check those prices) Interesting psychology isn’t it?
Brilliant! Thanks for this – I’m going to check out the book, too.