Menu Psychology

By Jessica Lee

What’s the difference between writing “9” and “$9” on your menu? Making or not making $9.
It’s all about menu psychology: using research and psychological tactics to influence the customer to buy a particular item, or buy more of the same item.

So where do you start?

“The first thing you’ve got to do is write a mission statement.,” says former restauranteur and current George Brown hospitality professor Andy Hickl-Szabo. “Then from there flows the menu, from that really flows everything else.”

In an article by the New York Times, writer Sarah Kershaw used restaurateur Danny Meyer’s new Indian restaurant, Tabla, as an example of how to successfully brand a dish. The name of one of the dishes, Boodie’s Chicken Liver Masala, draws from the observation that people like to buy products associated with persons. This is because the name gives a sense of tradition attached to the product. For Meyer’s restaurant, Boodie is the name of the head chef’s mother. Consumers are more likely to buy Grandma’s Ople’s apple pie, burgers freshly ground at Uncle Jake’s, or Aunt Jemina’s pancakes.

 If the food is from a special place, when describing it in the menu, you want to mention it as well, says Hickl-Szabo. For example writing “Berkshire pork” or “Kenyan coffee” is better than simply offering pork and coffee.


At Meyer’s restaurant, the price of Boodie’s chicken livers is $9, but it’s written simply as 9. According Kershaw, 9 is a “friendly and manageable” number.

 “Stuff at $9.99 sells much more than stuff at $10,” says Hickl-Szabo “And if you don’t put the dollar sign in front of 9.99, it sells [even] better.”

 However, some researchers say that the extra .99 makes the price seem “tacky” and cheap. Depending on the brand of your restaurant, the way you word your pricing is critical to how many items you sell.

 Hickl-Szabo, who has more than 25 years of experience in the restaurant business, says that a good menu does not emphasize the price.

 “Don’t draw dots from the menu item to the price. Don’t put the price all in a straight line. You don’t want to hide the price, but you don’t want to draw attention to it because there are a certain number of guests who just look down the price column and shop that way,” he says.

 Another tool restaurateurs can use is a simple comparison strategy when pricing their items. In the heart of the trendy SoHo district in New York, a restaurant named Balthazar has a seafood dish for two priced at $80.

 “It wasn’t selling because it was a ridiculous price, so they made the box wider and beside it, they put a similar thing, but for [$125],” says Hickl-Szabo.

 “So what happens now is that people by default look at that, and the one they wanted to sell, which was the cheap one at $80 now sells incredibly well because it’s positioned next to one that’s stupidly priced.”


 No matter how good the design of your menu is, if the food does not sound attractive, no one will eat at your restaurant.

“The chefs write the music and the menu becomes the lyrics, and sometimes the music is gorgeous and it’s got the wrong lyrics and the lyrics can torpedo the music,” Meyers told The New York Times.

 Describing the ingredients in the food stimulates guests’ appetites, which encourages them to order the dish.

 Cliché words and phrases can ruin the game. Hickl-Szabo advises to steer clear from “grilled to perfection” or “sensuous.” He also says to use simpler words when describing food.

 “You’re not fooling anybody,” he says. “You’ve got to tell the truth, you’ve got to sort of dress it up, but it’s got to be clever and discreet.”


Georgia State University hospitality professor Dave Pavesic says that too often, menus look like they are put together last minute.

In a carefully designed menu, restaurateurs can take advantage of prime menu space and strategically place items they want to sell in those areas.

“Much of the menu design is also adapted from retail merchandising principles that set up displays in department and other retail stores to catch the eye of the shopper,” says Pavesic,” adding that no one ever purchased something that never caught their attention.

Boxes, dotted outlines, or even extra white space can make items stand out. For efficiency reasons, Pavesic advises not to put items in key spaces if they take more than 10-12 minutes to prepare and need to be moved to two or more stations in the kitchen.

Another way to push sales is to put little icons beside the dish. But not too much, advises Hickl-Szabo, because “if everything is special, nothing is special.”


 Many consultants lean towards having smaller menus. According to research from Gallup, a news database from the U.S., the more time a customer spends looking at the menu, the longer the table turnover time is, which means less tables can be served, and less profit is made.

“I would rather not see a humongous menu,” says Hickel-Szabo, “If I see a menu that’s many many pages, the first thing I think is ‘none of it’s fresh.’ I’d rather see a smaller menu that changes more often. At the very least, you should change three times a year.”

He also adds that people will get tired of the same selections, and that chefs always want to be using ingredients that are in season.

Another reason to keep menus shorter, Hickl-Szabo says, is because too much choice will confuse patrons.


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