I am totally proud. My younger son Ezra recently graduated from the CIA. Not the government spy agency but the Culinary Institute of America. Based in Hyde Park, NY, it trains chefs and restaurant managers, and according to its website is “recognised as the world’s premier culinary college with an industry-wide reputation for excellence.” I hope so, because, over the years, we paid a lot of tuition.
Ezra’s education, however, included mastering some skills almost as surreptitious as those employed by a secret agent. Example: Menu engineering, the topic of his honours thesis.
“The menu is the heart of the restaurant. It embodies the restaurant’s demographics, concept, physical factors and personality,” Ezra wrote in solid prose that is an obvious genetic inheritance from his mother. But don’t kid yourself. A menu, he confided to me in an exclusive interview, is also a sales vehicle, and many restaurants — smart ones — use it to get you to eat right. And, we’re not talking about your health, but about their profits.
Restaurant dishes generally divide up four groups, says Ez. First come stars — popular items for which diners are willing to pay much more than the dishes cost to make. Example: penne with vodka sauce. Plowhorses, are popular but less profitable items, like steak. Puzzlers are high-profit items that are tough to sell, say, sweetbreads. Finally, there are dogs that not many people like and aren’t profitable. Why they are on anybody’s menu, I’m not sure. Clever menu engineering exists to steer you to stars and puzzlers, to spend as much as possible and to enjoy doing it. After all, restaurateurs want repeat business.
There’s nothing wrong with any of that. Nevertheless, before you order your next Lasagna Classico at Olive Garden, Crunchy Rabbit at Jean Georges in Manhattan or Egg McMuffin at You-Know-Where, you might want to be aware of these seven common menu ploys.
You won’t find these gambits at every eatery. Not all restaurant owners plan their menus as carefully as they should. If they did, contends my kid, maybe they would stop placing entrées in the middle of the right hand page, prime menu real estate, because “Most people who go to a restaurant are going to order an entrée anyway,” he says. “That’s where I’d put desserts.”
Unprofitable dishes, like a seafood combo plate that require expensive ingredients, and lots of work, are usually banished to a corner that's less noticeable or in a multi-page menu stashed on page five.
Focus groups who've been asked to opine on menus display an acute discomfort with dollar signs and decimals. Keeping money as abstract as possible makes spending less threatening.
Many high-tone foodie establishments that charge an arm and a leg for, say, a bowl of lentils and groats now omit such crass symbols from their menus -- like Spoonriver, a place I like in Minneapolis. I almost don't notice that I've paid $12.50 for a rather small chicken quesadilla. Once upon a time, menus used leader dots (….) to connect the entrée with the price. You won't find them much anymore either.
A restaurant may offer two chicken Caesar salads, one for $9 and one for $12. You may think that you're getting a break ordering the small one, but, says Ez, that's really the size the restaurant wants to sell.
And if a diner decides, hmmm, I may as well get the larger one because I'll never get rich saving three bucks, the restaurant will throw on some extra lettuce, making the price differential almost pure profit.
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