We live in a world of brands, pitches, advertising, promotions, PR, consumer research, product placement, focus groups, and 24/7 spin. So, it should come as no surprise that even that ubiquitous and utilitarian listing of food and drink items from your local restaurant — the menu — would come in for some 21st century marketing treatment.
Fast food chains have been optimizing the look and feel of their menus for years, often right down to the font, color (artificial) and placement of menu items. Now, many upscale restaurants are following suit. Some call it menu engineering.
From the Guardian:
It’s not always easy trying to read a menu while hungry like the wolf, woozy from aperitif and exchanging pleasantries with a dining partner. The eyes flit about like a pinball, pinging between set meal options, side dishes and today’s specials. Do I want comforting treats or something healthy? What’s cheap? Will I end up bitterly coveting my companion’s dinner? Is it immoral to fuss over such petty, first-world dilemmas? Oh God, the waiter’s coming over.
Why is it so hard to decide what to have? New research from Bournemouth University shows that most menus crowbar in far more dishes than people want to choose from. And when it comes to choosing food and drink, as an influential psychophysicist by the name of Howard Moskowitz once said: “The mind knows not what the tongue wants.”
Malcolm Gladwell cites an interesting nugget from his work for Nescafé. When asked what kind of coffee they like, most Americans will say: “a dark, rich, hearty roast”. But actually, only 25-27% want that. Most prefer weak, milky coffee. Judgement is clouded by aspiration, peer pressure and marketing messages.
The burden of choice
Perhaps this is part of the joy of a tasting or set menu – the removal of responsibility. And maybe the recent trend for tapas-style sharing plates has been so popular because it relieves the decision-making pressure if all your eggs are not in one basket. Is there a perfect amount of choice?
Bournemouth University’s new study has sought to answer this very question. “We were trying to establish the ideal number of starters, mains and puddings on a menu,” says Professor John Edwards. The study’s findings show that restaurant customers, across all ages and genders, do have an optimum number of menu items, below which they feel there’s too little choice and above which it all becomes disconcerting. In fast-food joints, people wanted six items per category (starters, chicken dishes, fish, vegetarian and pasta dishes, grills and classic meat dishes, steaks and burgers, desserts), while in fine dining establishments, they preferred seven starters and desserts, and 10 main courses, thank you very much.
Nightmare menu layouts
Befuddling menu design doesn’t help. A few years back, the author William Poundstone rather brilliantly annotated the menu from Balthazar in New York to reveal the marketing bells and whistles it uses to herd customers into parting with the maximum amount of cash. Professor Brian Wansink, author of Slim by Design, Mindless Eating Solutions to Every Day Life, has extensively researched menu psychology, or as he puts it, menu engineering. “What ends up initially catching the eye,” he says, “has an unfair advantage over anything a person sees later on.” There’s some debate about how people’s eyes naturally travel around menus, but Wansink reckons “we generally scan the menu in a z-shaped fashion starting at the top-left hand corner.” Whatever the pattern, though, we’re easily interrupted by items being placed in boxes, next to pictures or icons, bolded or in a different colour.
The language of food
The Oxford experimental psychologist Charles Spence has an upcoming review paper on the effect the name of a dish has on diners. “Give it an ethnic label,” he says, “such as an Italian name, and people will rate the food as more authentic.” Add an evocative description, and people will make far more positive comments about a dish’s appeal and taste. “A label directs a person’s attention towards a feature in a dish, and hence helps bring out certain flavours and textures,” he says.
But we are seeing a backlash against the menu cliches (drizzled, homemade, infused) that have arisen from this thinking. For some time now, at Fergus Henderson’s acclaimed restaurant, St John, they have let the ingredients speak for themselves, in simple lists. And if you eat at one of Russell Norman’s Polpo group of restaurants in London, you will see almost no adjectives (or boxes and other “flim-flam”, as he calls it), and he’s doing a roaring trade. “I’m particularly unsympathetic to florid descriptions,” he says.
However, Norman’s menus employ their own, subtle techniques to reel diners in. Take his flagship restaurant Polpo’s menu. Venetian dishes are printed on Italian butchers’ paper, which goes with the distressed, rough-hewn feel of the place. I don’t use a huge amount of Italian,” he says, “but I occasionally use it so that customers say ‘what is that?'” He picks an easy-to-pronounce word like suppli (rice balls), to start a conversation between diner and waiter.
Read the entire article here.
Image courtesy of Multyshades.