When you make decisions at a restaurant, you’re exercising your own free will: True or false?
Sorry to take away your agency, but the answer is mostly false. The second you walk into a dining establishment, you’re being slowly influenced to order the things the restaurant makes the most money selling. There are two ways it happens. One is at the corporate level, where chains design the whole experience to milk you of your money and keep you coming back. This is the realm of enticing photographs on menus, color theory (some say red makes you feel hungrier) or of things like McDonald’s odd mix of inviting design (bright lights that entice you in) and annoying design (the same over-bright lights also make you eat up and get out, and those seats are uncomfortable for a reason).
The other is possibly more interesting, consisting of the tricks used by small establishments to make you spend more. And like any home-spun psychological theory, these techniques are a mixture of solid advice and hokum.
A user on the question and answer site Quora recently asked: “How do restaurants use psychology to manipulate our spending and eating habits?” The answers are fascinating.
Let’s start with the menus. Quora member Neil Eisenberg points out that the flowery language used on menus–terms like “handcrafted, triple-basted, slow-cooked, golden-brown, hand-selected”–makes a dish seem more enticing. He also talks about limiting choice to make decisions easier (if you get stressed every time you have to hunt through a 30-page menu in your local Chinese restaurant you’ll appreciate this one).
Eisenberg also mentions decoys, expensive items intended only as a way to make the rest of the list seem cheaper. “Restaurants also use extremely expensive foods as decoys. The rationale being, you probably won’t buy it, but you’ll find something cheaper since it will look more reasonable,” he says.
Quora user Gabriel Lewis calls this trick “anchoring,” and gives the following example to illustrate it.
- Surf and Turf…………………..$45.00
- Fish and Chips…………………$16.00
Suddenly that $16 fish and chips looks cheap.
I was a waiter, cocktail bartender, and then restauranteur for around 15 years. After that, I designed menus, and although I never worked at the chain-restaurant level, we used plenty of tricks to increase sales of our most profitable items.
For instance, a friend and I opened a cocktail bar in Watford, North London. Previously we’d both worked in a central London bar together, where one of the most popular cocktails was the Mitch Martini, a short drink consisting of a single shot of bison-grass vodka (Zubrowka), a dash each of peach liquor and passion fruit syrup, and a slug of apple juice, served in a martini glass. It was a great drink, but you’d never sell it (at the time, around 2001) to anyone outside London, because the rest of the country was suspicious of such short, expensive drinks unless they were neat alcohol (like an actual martini).
To suit Watford’s well-off but more downmarket clientele, we stretched the drink with more apple juice, served it in a highball, and put it in third place on the menu, which is near enough to the top for everyone to see, but not in the first couple of spots, which most people tend to skip.
We also renamed it, and the Porn Star was, from the day we opened the bar, our best-selling drink. It was easy to drink, just as easy to mix, and–because it was mostly apple juice–it was almost all profit.
Menu engineer Gregg Rapp told Mental Floss about the psychology of menu design. Menus should flow, and not all parts of the menu are equal. “The upper right is where a person will go on a blank sheet of paper or in a magazine,” said Rapp. This is where a smart designer puts the most profitable items. “Then we build the appetizers on the upper left and salads underneath that. You want to keep the menu flowing well.”
Adding space around an item also draws attention to it, another great way to sell a profitable item. And remember, this applies to printed menus. With a combination of reconfigurable touch-screen menus, and loyalty-scheme information, a frequent diner will have a menu tailor-made to squeeze the most profit from them, based on their tastes.
When it comes to the wait staff, they have two jobs, which overlap. One is to make money for the establishment. The other is to make tips. If a customer tips the regular amount, then upping their spend will also up the final tip.
Heather Barnett, former restaurant waiter and host, lists some of waiting staff’s best tricks. “Some of these are obviously more nefarious than others (and many are things people do to genuinely be helpful) and to be frank, some restaurants will let you go if they catch you not doing it too many times,” she says. “Others are just tricks you learn as a server.”
The biggest “trick” is upselling, although it’s such an industry standard that it can’t really be called a trick. Upselling is convincing a customer to opt for the more expensive option. For instance, if you order a gin and tonic, the water or bartender will ask which gin you want. Why? “Because they know the more expensive brand names are the only ones you can name,” says Barnett.
If you want to avoid this, just reply that you want the house gin. If you want to do this and not seem cheap, ask what brand they pour. Often it’ll be something you’ve heard of anyway, so you can tell the waiter that it’ll be just fine. And maybe you’ll find out that their house brand is something terrible, in which case you just avoided a bad drink.
Barnett also lists cutesy tip-boosting tricks like spending time being extra nice to kids, or “personalizing your server book,” because “putting pictures of your dog or kids makes you seem more friendly.” In my experience, this is typical of the cargo-cult mentality of service staff. In reality, those stickers are as likely to make someone annoyed as they are to win their affection, and if you chat up the kids on a table where the parents just want you to leave them alone, then you just lost your extra tip.
A small 2002 study, published by Cornell University, investigated the effect of candy on tipping. It found that a piece of chocolate placed on the plate with the check increased the amount tipped, and that–up to a point–more chocolates equaled bigger tips. More interesting than this result was the reasoning behind it. The study mentions the familiar list of psychological tricks employed by wait staff everywhere: “briefly touching one’s customers, squatting during the initial contact, making additional non-task visits, and displaying a maximal smile when introducing oneself to one’s customers.” Waiters even resort to writing thank you or “drawing a happy, smiling face on the back” of the check.
Maximal smiles aside, whether drawn or faked, the real reason the chocolates increased tips appears to be good old-fashioned guilt. “People often feel obligated to reciprocate acts of generosity even if those acts were not requested or anticipated,” concludes the study.
Sometimes, the needs of the customer jibe with the needs of the establishment. A good bartender will ask you if you’d like another drink when you have a third of your current drink left. They know that once you’ve finished, you’re likely to have already decided to leave, and they want you to stay. But this trick also means you’ll never have to break off your conversation just to get another drink.
A good waiter or bartender will also constantly clean your table, or your spot of the bar, so you feel more comfortable. They know that this will make you stay, and that leaving all your empty glasses and dirty plates will remind you (subconsciously) of how much you’ve already had. The upside for you is a clean and pleasant space to enjoy yourself in.
But sometimes, waiters and bartenders will use their powers for evil, and I’m not talking about adding a little extra gob of something to your sandwich on its way from the kitchen. Quora user Martin Elkins describes the “long pour.”
The long pour: Have you ever seen a bartender pouring a drink and bring the bottle waaaayyyyy far away from the shaker/glass while they are pouring? This gives the illusion that they are dumping huge amounts of liquor into the drink, when in fact it’s all based on the timing.
Elkins says that the long pour is used to butter up a customer to get a bigger tip, but it can also be used to short-pour a moron who’s constantly asking their server to “fill ‘er up,” with extra booze, all while they think the bartender is doing them a special favor.
The thing to remember is that, unless you’ve abandoned yourself to the psychological techniques of the large chains, most restaurants are just trying to maximize sales in a low-margin business, by whatever means they have available. And waiters who mainly work for tips want to earn as much as possible, but the best of them do this by treating the customer well. English restauranteur, consultant and Quora user Ross Boardman puts it best:
A skilled server can sell you anything, again and again. They will up-sell you, get the best tips out of you and you will come back and do it again. … So, if you employ good salespeople and sell a good product, your customers come back. Good sales is about amplifying honesty.