Exposing the secrets restaurants use on their menus

Exposing the secrets restaurants use on their menus


by DION LIM / NBC Charlotte


Posted on February 2, 2013 at 12:24 AM

Updated Monday, Feb 4 at 6:31 AM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The dinner rush at barbecue joint Queen City Q in uptown Charlotte, is a bit busier than usual. Manager Bryan Meredith is busy tending to guests as they happily lick their fingers of homemade sauce and swig different beers.

Part of the reason for the increase in traffic—a menu change about eight weeks ago.

“We used to have this bulky tri-fold thing, and we could tell it was uncomfortable,” Meredith said.

In an industry where restaurants are lucky to make 10 cents on the dollar and in Mecklenburg County where there are 2,000 restaurants, Meredith says change was needed.

“The cost of goods, 30 percent.  Labor, 30 percent.  Overhead, 30 percent…We made the mistake of putting out a menu with no real definition of what we were steering you to.  Since we introduced this (new) menu, we’re selling more pulled pork sandwiches than ever before.  I’ve got to believe it’s not a coincidence,” he added.

It’s not.  At least according to Wendy Dimitri, founder of the CRB Group, who studies restaurant menus for a living.  She didn’t work on Queen City Q, but has seen hundreds of menus and says there is a psychology to almost everything you see.

“There’s very little left to uncertainty in a well-planned menu.  It’s the main sales tool for restaurants,” Dimitri said.

First, Dimitri points out the importance of eye placement. She picks up a menu for a different, well-known BBQ chain, and points to the center of the page.

“When you open this menu, your eyes go automatically here.  This is the highest rent district on the menu,” she said.

This is the area where restaurants position dishes they want you to buy.  Either because of good profit margins, or because the item helps sell a brand. For Meredith at Queen City Q, that item is their pulled pork.

“We’re a BBQ place.  We want (guests) to have BBQ, brisket or pulled pork, which is our core product.  If you’re coming in for the first time, I don’t want you to evaluate us based on a tuna taco.”

Speaking of profit margins, pasta and carbohydrates in general are huge moneymakers.  Some pasta dishes and risotto dishes can cost less than a dollar in ingredients, and sell for as much as 10 times more. 

Eggs are another high profit item, since they cost restaurants pennies, and can make marked up five to eight times.

Next, Dimitri points out the way menus are laid out.  When menu items are written out, with the price underneath, she says it’s called “nesting.”

“The idea with nesting prices is you’ll read the description, fall in love with the dish and order it.  So therefore, (you’re) not thinking of the price, but the product.  It’s product shopping, not price shopping.”

An example of the opposite of nesting is a menu where the prices are all listed in a column.  This can cause customers to scan down the column and be influenced by price.

The numbers chosen in a price can make a difference, too.

“Studies have shown 9’s and 5’s have a connotation to consumers of a lesser price.  So every one of these has a 9 or a 5 or both,” noted Dimitri.

Another issue Meredith dealt with at Queen City Q is the amount of alcohol sales to food.

“We were selling 90 percent food and 10percent alcohol.  Everyone was like why aren’t you selling more?”

Maybe it comes as no surprise, but beverages have the highest profit margins.  An iced tea that costs pennies to make can cost a buck or two.  Wine, a 500 percent markup, isn’t uncommon.

So now, instead of a separate beer menu, the ‘Q’ now lists them on the back of the food menu, smack dab in the middle of the page.

“Since we added the bottled beer to the list, our sales of bottled beer are up over 100 percent.  It’s absolutely amazing,” Meredith said.

So ultimately that seemingly simple laminated piece of paper, or leather bound binder acts more as a marketing tool than just a list of appetizers and entrees.  It’s a marketing tool that, according to Meredith, can result in smarter ordering, more tips for servers and influence an entire restaurant experience.

“It’s better financially, but the bigger picture is that everyone is happier in the game, and that’s important,” said Meredith.