Dining out is so common, and you probably don’t think much about the work that goes into your dining experience.
It’s worth noting though, that restaurants are not just about great food and impeccable service – they’re also about using psychology to make you spend more money.
Behind the scenes, menu engineers and consultants put careful thought into the way you choose what you eat.
Here are some sneaky restaurant tricks that entice you to open your wallet and spend more than you intend to!
1. Selective Music.
You might not pay much attention to the music playing at your favorite hangout, but a thoughtful restaurant owner or manager certainly does. The music you hear depends on the establishment’s goals. If it’s a busy lunch place that depends on turning tables quickly to make a profit, you can expect up-tempo tunes.
At night, in a fine-dining restaurant, where keeping you in your seat increases the odds of selling more wine or dessert, you can expect low-key music. You might even find that the same restaurant wears a different face depending on the time of day, using faster music in the daytime for quick turns, and mellow music at night for leisurely dining.
Lighting can also affect the pace at which people eat. Restaurants that blast up-tempo music, often use bright, aggressive lighting to get you in and out of the door faster.
Likewise, fine dining establishments generally opt for mellow lighting, to get you into a more relaxed mood, hoping that you’ll spend more time and money.
3. Reading Patterns.
Restaurants consider scan-paths, which are a series of eye fixations that can be studied to see how people read certain things. According to studies, people look at the top right of the menu first, and the bottom left of the menu last.
Thus, many restaurants will put the most expensive stuff (usually the anchor item) in the top right.
It’ll catch your eye there, increasing its chances of selling, and it will also make the rest of the items look cheaper in comparison. A win-win for the restaurant!
4. Highlighting Sections.
Boxes, borders and white space draw the eye automatically.
Restaurants will often highlight things like high-profit items or more expensive items in decorative boxes to draw your eyes to them. It’s a very simple premise but a very effective one.
When you’re just browsing around the menu, chances are, you’re more likely to look at the part with all the decoration and vivid colors.
5. Limiting Options.
Many restaurants limit the offerings on a menu. The reason has to do with a psychological phenomenon known as “the paradox of choice.” The more options we’re given, the more anxiety we experience about making the right choice.
A menu with more than seven items per category is likely to leave diners feeling “overwhelmed and confused.” By limiting options, restaurants help diners relax their minds and decide faster.
6. Suggestive Selling Techniques.
The best servers are also salespeople. When you’re in the hands of a master, you’ll never even see it coming!
Whether it’s a bubbly youngster telling you to save room for the ‘to die for’ chocolate cake, or a formally dressed sommelier hinting that there’s an extra-special Cabernet Sauvignon in your immediate future, waiters are proactively priming you to yield to temptation.
This is one of the best psychology tricks at a restaurant’s disposal, because when it’s done well, it means they’re helping you rationalize something you already want. After all, that dessert won’t be as many calories if you split it, right?
7. Descriptive Language.
Have you ever just looked at the words on a menu? The ice cream is always “sweet and creamy.” Buffalo wings may be “tender, juicy, and drenched in a delicious, tangy sauce,” and so on.
Restaurants go through a great deal to make each dish sound as delicious as possible. The reason is fairly obvious – they want your mouth to water, because it’s money in their pocket.
8. Family Connections.
Which of the following are you more likely to order? A slice of “Apple Pie”? Or “Grandma’s Old Fashioned Apple Pie?” Most likely, you would pick grandma’s pie, and that’s what most people would choose as well.
Restaurants have figured out that by attaching some sort of family connection to a dish, they can tap into your own family connection – and even make you nostalgic for fond family memories – which will increase the chances that you’ll want to order it.
Large fast food chains generally can’t get away with stuff like this, but this technique works very well for those Mom and Pop’s diners.
9. Borrowed Branding.
Just as marketers exploit our familiarity and connection to well-known brands, so do restaurant menus. For example, fans of whiskey know the Jack Daniels name, and thus, they’re more likely to enjoy a sauce made from one of their favorite beverages.
It doesn’t necessarily add a whole lot of value to the dish – often it’s difficult or impossible to taste the difference – but that brand recognition does give restaurateurs a lever to increase prices or drive additional sales.
10. Baked Fresh.
There’s nothing like the smell of something fresh from the oven, and restaurants and coffee shops are well aware of this. However, the words “baked fresh” on a menu mean relatively little, unless they’re followed with the words “from scratch.”
Few establishments can afford the skill and labor required to make croissants, Danishes and similar pastries from scratch, so they’re usually bought frozen from a wholesaler and then thawed and baked as needed.
It’s the same story with cakes… in most cases – especially in casual restaurants – they’re also bought frozen from a wholesaler. Pies and breads are easier to make in-house, so your odds are better with those items.
11. Different Portion Sizes.
One of the oldest tricks in the book, this practice is so common, it even has its own restaurant-lingo term: “bracketing.”
Menus will often give you the option of ordering two different sizes of a dish, and while you may think they’re trying to get you to spend more by ordering the larger portion, the exact opposite is the case. In fact, the restaurant wants you to choose the smaller portion, which costs them less in raw materials and offers a higher profit margin.
The difference in price is typically more than the cost of up-sizing the order, so the restaurant wins either way, even if you decide to order the larger portion.
12. Table Talkers.
Table talkers are the stands and flip-cards that stay on the table all day. They are a sort of secondary menu that draws both your gaze and hands as you wait for your server or your food.
Table talkers are designed to take advantage of idle moments – similar to the impulse items at the supermarket checkout line.
At the bar area, you can expect to see table talkers promoting high-profit cocktails or the kind of highly seasoned, addictive finger foods that get more appealing as the empty glasses accumulate.
In the dining room, they’ll usually promote wine, drink specials or mouth-watering desserts. It’s relatively easy to say no to a server who pops by and offers a brief moment of temptation – but it’s much harder to resist that vivid, glossy, laminated page calling to your taste buds again and again.
13. Wait At The Bar.
Waiting at the bar until your table is ready is a pretty familiar scenario, and it probably won’t raise any red flags.
After all, it’s better than standing in the foyer while the previous diners finish their coffee and dessert, right? Well, it’s definitely better for the restaurant.
There’s a very good chance you’ll oder a drink while you wait, and drinks are often more profitable than food.
If you’d intended to have just a glass of wine with your meal, and you’ve had that glass while you’re waiting, you’ll probably still want one with the meal. That extra glass, multiplied by hundreds of diners, adds up.
14. The “Side Hustle”.
Hustling side dishes as a revenue-builder is a longstanding tradition in the restaurant industry. Those a la carte fries or onion rings make a huge difference in the profitability of a dish.
That side dish improves your perception of the meal – even when the ingredients are as cheap as potatoes or onions.
15. Second-Least Expensive Wine.
Restaurants will often jack up the price of the second-cheapest bottle of wine on the menu.
The psychology behind this is that most people don’t want to appear to be a cheapskate by ordering the least expensive wine on the menu, but are thrifty enough to gravitate toward the second least expensive.
Restaurants became wise to this and added a bigger markup on the second least expensive wine. It’s still the second least expensive but it’s the worst deal out of any wine on the menu!
16. Bundling Up.
One of the most universal tricks of the restaurant trade is bundling menu items. It’s psychologically a clear winner, offering what appears to be much better value for a relatively small increase in spending. This works like a charm at every level of dining.
If you’ve ever opted for a combo at your local burger joint or Chinese takeout, you’ve experienced this at the low end. Surprisingly, it works in fine dining as well!
Bundling a flight of multiple wines with a meal or a bottle rather than a glass, drives up the total revenue from your table quite nicely.
17. Banishing The Dollar Sign.
In restaurants above a certain price level, you’ll seldom see a dollar sign.
You may shrug it off initially, because your conscious mind knows the dollar sign is still there, but it’s more important than you think. When you see dollar signs, you think of money. They don’t want you to think of money.
They want you to think of food. Research shows that eliminating the dollar sign makes it psychologically easier for you to order costlier dishes. Rounding to an even dollar and dropping the decimal point and cents afterward has a similar effect.
18. Gift Cards.
Gift cards make the holiday season easier, and they help cut down on your wrapping paper budget, but they aren’t necessarily the best way to provide friends or family with a night out.
When it comes to gift cards, most get lost in the junk drawer. In fact, more than $1 billion in gift cards go unused every year! This isn’t quite free money for the issuing restaurant, because eventually they’ll pay taxes on the unredeemed portion of that revenue – but it’s still profitable!
The bottom line is, just like any other business, restaurants are always trying to sell you more. Without profit, a restaurant can’t survive, and that means they aren’t immune to the same kind of trickery other businesses engage in to make you spend more money.
Now that you’ve learned some tricks of the trade, keep these in mind the next time you order!
We want to know what you think! Do you dine out often?
Which of these tricks of the restaurant industry surprised you the most?