Expensive restaurants use marketing tricks to influence your decisions. (photo by Enoch Lai)

If you’re a frugal person like me, you want value when it comes to dining out. For me, this doesn’t mean cheap food – I want good, nutritious, and satisfying food or an amazing experience but at the lowest possible price. A lot of restaurants now put their menus online, but many of them will leave the price out or it will be an older menu, from say 2009, so you really have no idea how much things cost until you get there. I really don’t like surprises when it comes to paying for things, so here are some common menu techniques to tell if the restaurant you are considering is going to charge exorbitantly high prices. And if you happen to find yourself at an expensive restaurant, you can also use these techniques to find the most value-conscious menu choice (i.e., highly popular but low profit menu items) while avoiding the restaurant’s “breadwinners” (i.e., high profit menu items).

I recently dined at a higher-end restaurant. I usually wouldn’t go to a restaurant such as this one, but it was on a Groupon voucher, so it was quite affordable and the experience was also unique and worthwhile. Here is what their menu looked like.

wood and steelThink of menus like marketing advertisements. The higher end and international restaurants will tend to use a lot of marketing techniques to get you to spend more and not feel so bad about it. There are a lot of messages these menu convey. The following are generalisations of what is typically seen in expensive restaurant menus.

  1. The menu is only one or two pages. Generally, the fewer the food choices, the more expensive the restaurant is (of course, this does not apply to fast food places like food courts). Fewer items means less buyer’s regret. Sometimes too many choices can be stifling. Larger menu selections also make it difficult for high-end restaurants to convince you to purchase their more profitable items.
  1. The drink/wine menu is much bigger or just as big as the food menu.
  1. Expensive restaurants commonly leave out the dollar signs and/or the cents digits on prices (e.g., pork chop, 25) because they don’t want to remind you of the pain you will feel in your wallet after the meal.
  1. Expensive restaurants typically will not put many pictures on their menu. There will be usually just one photo per page or no photo at all. Having illustrations (as opposed to photos) is another indicator.
  1. The menu selection will often include a “chef’s choice” whereas less expensive restaurants will have a “your choice” section (e.g., your choice of meat – chicken, pork, beef; your choice of cooking style). Expensive restaurants tell you what to eat, whereas you are free to choose at cheaper restaurants.
  1. Mid-range and many high-end restaurants use more descriptive words (e.g., “handcrafted,” “triple-basted,” “slow-cooked”, “traditional”, “buttery”, “succulent”) or brands (e.g., “Jack Daniel” glazed ribs). However, the very, very high-end restaurants will be simplier in their descriptions, but will tell you the origins of their ingredients (e.g., “Portuguese iberico pork”, “Matsusaka wagyu beef”). This is to convince you that the meal is special and that you are getting a good value.
  1. Expensive restaurants may not list prices in a single column format. They instead, might use multiple columns in one page, divide the page into sections, or list the price in a centre-justified way (e.g., see the “pizza” section on the above menu). This is to discourage you from quickly scanning the prices and looking for the cheapest item on the menu.
  1. High end restaurants will often use “anchor items”. These are ridiculously expensive items often placed at the top right corner or top centre and highlighted in some way. They are there for the purpose of making everything else on the menu seem more reasonable. You might feel uncomfortable spending $85 on a wagyu beef dish, but suddenly the $25 chicken dish doesn’t look so bad. Beware of the menu items directly adjacent to the anchors, as these tend to also be highly profitable items for the restaurant.
  1. The prime real estate on a menu is the top right hand corner of each page. This is generally where expensive restaurants will put their “breadwinners” and “anchors”. These high profit items will be highlighted and emphasised in some way, such as boxes, lines, and icons. The low profit items are generally located in the middle-left and bottom-left. They will not be highlighted or given a lot of descriptive terms. If you happen to find yourself at an expensive restaurant, these items tend to be the more value-conscious items.

Now that you know the tricks expensive restaurants use to get you to spend, never be fooled by a fancy innocent looking menu again!


1 comment on “Are you Being Fooled by Restaurant Menus?”

  1. Yes, of course their job is to make a profitable business, but as customers it’s ours to seek out value for money! Great tips! You’ve definitely trained my eye to these tactics! I also heard that the starter and dessert items are most profitable, so I usually avoid these unless there’s something completely amazing and memorable I can’t pass up (not that we eat out much, but on special occasions…) I also noticed the vegetarian items are so much cheaper. This means you can still fully enjoy the nice restaurant experience for a much lower cost, then move to another (cheaper) venue for dessert if required!

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