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.”