Don’t fall for these restaurant tricks

It’s always nice to enjoy a night out at a restaurant, but little do many people know that restaurants employ some seriously tricky strategies to get you to spend more money than you really want to.

From the first exchange with wait staff, opening the menu, right through to choosing desserts, restaurants are a business designed to make money and the subtle tactics they employ do just that. Knowing these tricks from Money Talks will help you to become a savvy diner and may even help you eat out more often.

1. Tempting food descriptions
One of the most obvious techniques designed to suck money out of you – and usually the difference between a successful restaurant and a flop – are irresistible food descriptions that “sound too yummy to pass up, regardless of their cost”, says Alison Pearlman, author of the book May We Suggest: Restaurant Menus and the Art of Persuasion.

“If you just had a dish without the description, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective,” Ms Pearlman told Money Talks. “Sales will go up about 27 per cent when you add descriptive copy to the items.”

2. Using tantalising images
I have one rule about restaurants: if they have images on the menu, don’t eat there. The only time I break this rule is if the menu is in a foreign language. But even then …

Colour photographs of dishes can draw you to featured items, usually higher priced items, but rarely does the final dish match the image. Don’t fall for the old food photo trick.

3. Using price decoys
Some restaurants list very expensive meals next to slightly less expensive dishes to make them look cheap by comparison, according to professional menu engineer Gregg Rapp. The higher priced dish – known in the trade as a decoy – makes the lower priced dish seem more reasonably priced

“If you have a higher-priced item, it will direct them to the lower-priced item, if they are shopping for price,” says Mr Rapp.

4. Prices with no dollar signs
Some restaurants will leave dollar signs off menu prices, in order to make you forget you’ll be paying money for food. Sound ridiculous, right? It’s known as ‘softening the pricing’, and according to a 2009 Cornell University study, diners who viewed numeral-only menus spent a lot more than those who viewed menus with prices that included dollar signs.

5. Making it difficult to compare meals
Many customers shop by price, so restaurants often avoid menus that make it easy for patrons to compare the costs of meals. Our professional menu engineer Mr Rapp advises his clients not to line up the prices, as a long column of prices makes it easier for diners to find the cheapest items.

6. Highlighting expensive items
Some techniques restaurants use to highlight costly (i.e., the most profitable) dishes include:

  • describing dishes in larger letters
  • placing boxes around some dishes
  • leaving more white space around each dish.

7. Fewer choices on the menu
Menus with multiple food choices can confuse diners, who’ll often fall back on familiar and inexpensive items. So restaurants give patrons fewer choices that include more expensive dishes. To avoid overwhelming customers, Mr Rapp advises his clients to list no more than seven items in each section.

8. Cleanliness inspires confidence
If a diner sees a dirty menu, they will often walk out, as cleanliness attracts customer confidence and many believe a stained menu reflects the food quality coming from the kitchen.

“A clean menu helps put people in the mood to relax and open up their wallets,” says Mr Rapp.

Do you fall for these restaurant tricks? What other tricks have you noticed when you eat out?

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Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca has worked in publishing and media in one form or another for around 25 years. He's a voracious reader, word spinner and art, writing, design, painting, drawing, travel and photography enthusiast. You'll often find him roaming through galleries or exploring the streets of his beloved Melbourne and surrounding suburbs, sketchpad or notebook in hand, smiling.
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