There are a lot of ways you could describe dining out, but “psychological warfare” probably isn’t the phrase that springs to mind. In truth, it’s not a bad metaphor for the barrage of techniques restaurants use to coax a few extra dollars out of you. Restaurants have a number of ways that will have you leaving with a wallet that is more empty than your stomach is full.
Last updated: Aug. 26, 2019
Location, Location, Location
Location is said to be the key to restaurant success, and that applies to the menu as well. Menu design is a whole field of study in itself, and you see its principles in restaurants from casual to fine. The middle of the page and its top corners are the areas that draw your eye most consistently, so you’ll see high-dollar or high-margin items placed there prominently.
Highlighting the Most Expensive Item
Another technique places the most expensive item at the top of a menu section, such as the seafood section or the pasta section. 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.
The second position and the last position in each section are other places where the eye roams, so you can expect to see high-margin or high-dollar items carefully slotted in there, too.
Boxes and Borders
Boxes, borders and white space draw the eye automatically as well. A menu item that’s surrounded by a box, or a blank area, almost always will be one the restaurateur really, really wants you to order.
Don’t fall for the allure of the box or border. You’ll likely find a better deal looking elsewhere on the menu.
Words Are Cheap, So They’re Spent Freely
Suppose you open one menu and see this: “Fragrant slices of Derby cheese on hand-cut fresh brioche, grilled in our sandwich press and served with crisped sage leaves from our chef’s herb beds.” Now consider a similar offering from a second menu: “Gourmet grilled cheese sandwich.”
The first one is likelier to sell and to command a higher price, despite it being essentially the same dish. The difference is largely in the language used to sell it, and that’s what makes menu writing such an art form.
As a rule, the more words a menu lavishes on a specific item, the more the restaurant wants you to buy it. That’s especially true when they use sensory words — “crisp,” “sizzle,” “fragrant” — or emotional ones, such as “traditional,” “comforting” or “Grandma’s.” When you see them, know you’re being consciously manipulated, so focus on what the dish is and not what the menu says about it.
You might not pay much attention to the music playing at your favorite hangout, but a thoughtful restaurateur certainly does. Hospitality operators have known for decades that up-tempo music tends to make people eat faster, while slower, quieter tunes create a mellow vibe that keeps you in your seat longer.
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 a dessert, 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. Either way, learn to tune it out and dine on your own schedule.
Brighter or dimmer lighting also can affect the pace at which people eat.
Those restaurants that blast up-tempo music often will use bright, aggressive lighting to get you in and out of the door faster, too. 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 — at the restaurant.
That Really Friendly Server
The best servers are also salespeople, and 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 cheesecake or a suave, formally dressed sommelier hinting that there’s an extra-special Pinot Noir in your immediate future, waiters are proactively priming you to yield to temptation.
This is one of the best psychology tricks at the 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?
Restaurants walk a fine line with this one, because it can quickly become a mindless checklist for the server — “Want fries with that?” — or worse, come across as pushy and aggressive. When executed correctly, you’ll just feel that the server has taken care of you very well. You’ll probably even celebrate spending more than you’d intended by leaving an extra-big tip.
Table talkers are a sort of secondary menu — they’re the stands and flip-cards that stay on the table all day and draw both your gaze and hands as you wait for your server or your food. They’re the eating-out equivalent of the impulse items at the supermarket checkout line, designed to take advantage of idle moments.
In the bar, 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 a restaurant, they’ll usually push wine, drink specials or lovingly photographed desserts.
It’s relatively easy to say no to a server who pops up alongside your table and offers a brief moment of temptation. It’s much harder to resist that glossy, laminated page with its vivid colors calling to your taste buds again and again.
Dishes Do the Selling
Perhaps the simplest form of manipulation restaurants use is showing you a dish as it goes past your table. Many restaurants construct dishes specifically intended to catch your attention as they pass through the dining room.
They might be especially lavish in a fine-dining restaurant or require table-side preparation with plenty of drama and a sudden flame. In more casual establishments, fajitas or steaks served on sizzling platters serve the same purpose. The aroma of the seared meats and the sound of the cast iron sizzling are powerful motivators, urging you to order the same. Yeah, that’s right: They really do “sell the sizzle.”
Carts and Trolleys
Dessert carts, and the little trolleys of dim sum that circulate in Chinese restaurants, serve the same purpose as those sizzling fajita dishes. After you’ve watched them roll by a few times, admiring the view or savoring the aromas, you’re an easy target.
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. So do those wonderful pairings restaurants promote, where you’ll get to try special dishes matched with specific wines, spirits or craft beers.
The only answer to this one is to know what you plan to order and stick with it. Like servers who sell really well, this trick works by helping you rationalize doing something you’d already like to do.
Restaurateurs with imagination understand that the restaurant’s name and brand are assets and try to get as much leverage from them as possible. Sending you home with a free calendar or matchbooks with the bar’s name on the cover is for amateurs. Serious players want you to promote them everywhere you go — and they’ll make you pay for the privilege.
Restaurants don’t have to be the Hard Rock Cafe to make a good thing out of merchandising. A place with a reputation for craft beers can sell you the pitcher along with the brew at a tidy markup. Ditto that super-duper cocktail in the glass you get to keep, or the commemorative shirt that gives you bragging rights as an opening-week customer at the hot new night spot.
To avoid a side of buyer’s remorse with tomorrow’s hangover, think about your merchandise purchases the same way you would a purchase at any retailer. If that shirt looks good on you, if you’d really get some use out of the barbecue apron, or if the chef’s cookbook looks like a winner, great. Otherwise, just say no.
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, there’s an awful lot of “breakage,” with more than $1 billion in gift cards going unused every year, according to advisory company CEB TowerGroup. 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.
If you want to treat friends to a night out, it might be better to make that reservation and pay in advance with your credit card.
That Wait at the Bar
Waiting at the bar until your table is ready is a pretty familiar scenario, and it’s one that probably won’t raise any mental red flags for you. After all, it’s better than standing in the foyer while the previous diners linger over coffee and dessert, right?
Well, it’s definitely better for the restaurant. There’s a very good chance you’ll order a drink while you wait, and drinks often are 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 a few hundred diners, adds up.
The Bar, Part Two
Having you spend the first several minutes of your evening at the bar packs a secondary benefit for the restaurateur. Aside from the actual dollar value of the drinks you order while you’re waiting, research shows that diners with a drink or two under their belt are likely to think they are hungrier than they are, then linger longer and order more. That drives up the total check, which is a definite plus for the restaurant if not for your wallet.
In fact, for your wallet, it’s a double whammy: The higher check total means you’ll be tipping more as well.
Grab and Go
Retail stores have bumped up their margins for years by putting small impulse items such as chocolate bars, magazines and packs of gum or batteries in the checkout area. The restaurant industry is no slouch at this, either.
Do you think it’s an accident that the cookies at Subway are right under your nose as you stand at the cash register with your wallet out, or that the pie dispensers at McDonald’s are straight ahead at eye level? Higher-end restaurants accomplish the same thing by placing packaged treats, branded merchandise or elegantly packaged handmade chocolates near the exit.
Even after you’ve successfully said no to dessert, you might decide on the spur of the moment to pick up a treat for a friend or someone back at the office.
Another way restaurants large and small coax a little extra from your pocket is through the use of brands you already know and love. That might mean a major chain putting a specific barbecue sauce on its burger or Sriracha on its chicken. In an independent restaurant, it might mean name-checking a premium whiskey in its steak sauce.
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.
The Automatic Gratuity
Some restaurants make a regular practice of including a gratuity automatically in the check total. The motive is usually not a naked cash grab, but rather a natural desire to shelter tip-dependent servers from the sometimes random whims of their guests.
Still, if it’s not spelled out clearly on the check — or if there’s a line conveniently left for you to tip extra — it’s all too easy to find yourself doubling down. Those extra dollars go to the servers, not the restaurant, but either way they’re out of your pocket. Read the menu, and the check, carefully before you whip out that credit card.
And don’t forget to research the tipping etiquette in different countries if you’re traveling.
Leaning Heavily on Inexpensive Ingredients
Finding ways to turn cheap ingredients into signature, highly promoted dishes is one of the really fundamental ways for restaurants to carve out some elbow room in their food costs. Restaurants run on notoriously tight margins — about 6.5 percent net profit for the rolling year ending in January 2018, and that’s a good year — so every cent they can shave on food cost takes on an outsized importance.
Remember when rice bowls were suddenly all the rage? Yeah, that was in part because rice costs just pennies per portion. Use common sense, and don’t buy dishes heavy on low-priced ingredients if they’re anything but moderate in price.
If you want an especially widespread example of maximizing low-cost ingredients, look no further than brunch at your favorite eatery. A well-constructed brunch menu — from the restaurant’s perspective — offers up mostly inexpensive breakfast-time ingredients, but charges prices more in line with the lunchtime menu. If you love going out for weekend brunch, then by all means continue to enjoy it, but at least contemplate which items give you the best bang for the buck compared to eating at home.
Pro tip: Mimosas made with concentrated orange juice and the cheapest possible bubbly probably won’t make that list.
The Dessert Menu
French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte employed the equally legendary 18th-century chef Marie-Antoine Carême to create an extravagant wedding cake because he wanted to impress his guests with not only a delicious dessert but a beautiful one.
The dessert menu operates on the same principle, and even if you seldom indulge at home it’s hard to say no at a restaurant. They just look so good. The catch is that in many cases — especially in casual restaurants — those desserts aren’t made in-house, but bought frozen from a wholesaler (you’ve noticed how many places seem to have the same things, right?).
You can get something similar from the freezer case at your local supermarket for a fraction of the cost, so only order the dessert if you know it’s made from scratch and something you can’t get just anywhere.
There’s nothing like the smell of something fresh from the oven to get your attention, and restaurants and coffee shops know that all too well. The problem is that the words “baked fresh” on a menu mean relatively little unless they’re followed with the words “from scratch.”
Relatively 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. Pies and breads are easier to do in-house, so your odds are better with those items, but you should always ask if they’re scratch-made before you order.
It’s nice to know that your dish contains the really good Parmigiano-Reggiano or the high-grade Spanish saffron, but there’s no guarantee it hasn’t been stretched with lower-cost ingredients. Except in the very best of restaurants, there’s every chance your pasta dish also includes a less-exalted Parmesan-style cheese, or that the saffron has been augmented by a few pinches of turmeric for a more vivid color.
Take it all with a substantial grain of salt, and don’t let the promise of a costly ingredient blind you to the big-picture value of the overall dish.
The Trendy Ingredient
There are hot trends in restaurant food ingredients, just as there are in any other industry. Kale and quinoa were little-known not so long ago, and even activated charcoal has had its brief moment as the ingredient du jour.
Changing tabbouleh salad to use quinoa instead of the traditional bulgur wheat, or adding baby kale to a Caesar salad, doesn’t change their cost or value a whole lot. Enjoy them, but don’t pay a big premium.
The “Side Hustle”
The rise of non-traditional income options such as Uber have led to the notion of a “side hustle” as a way to make up any gaps in your budget. That’s old hat in the restaurant industry, where hustling side dishes as a revenue-builder is a longstanding tradition. 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.
If the main dish was calling your name already before you were offered the add-on, you’re probably better off skipping the extra calories and keeping the extra cash.
Soup, Like Talk, is Cheap
A well-made soup is a welcome part of any meal, but soup isn’t always the best use of your dollar when you’re eating out.
Soups are a frugal dish by nature, and in the restaurant world they’re often a way to repurpose ingredients that are getting a bit too tired to feature on a plate. You’ll never see it on a menu as “Cream of whatever I ordered too much of,” but often that’s what it boils down to.
Feel free to order soup whenever you’re in the mood, but recognize that it’s going to give you a smaller return on your dollar than most other items.
Banishing the Dollar Sign
A quick glance at many menus will reveal another psychological quirk the industry exploits successfully: 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.
Research from Cornell University 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.
Manipulating the Size Options
The much-mocked “Tall, Grande, Venti” beverage sizes at Starbucks exist for a reason: What you call something matters.
Venti carries less existential guilt than “Extra Large,” let alone more candid descriptors such as “make me slosh” or “sugar junkie.” Oversized beverages exist because the costs of the cup and its contents vary little by size, making larger sizes significantly more profitable. Restaurants also stack the deck by tweaking the sizes and their descriptions, so that last year’s “large” becomes this year’s “regular” and so on.
The easy fix for this is to know the sizes and order a moderate option.
“They’re Small, Take Two…”
Size matters in the opposite direction, too.
Restaurants sell larger sizes by making them seem like a great value, but they sell small sizes when they’re coaxing you into an indulgence. Tiny, jewel-like sweets and treats can be an easier sell than a full-sized dessert, because it’s easier to rationalize even when you know perfectly well you don’t need to take a single additional bite.
Or how about “bar bites,” which are bite-sized items that people can munch on while enjoying some beverages at the bar. People who don’t want to spend the money for a full appetizer instead might order bar bites, and then an additional drink.
That Shiny New Mobile App
Large quick-service chains are rolling out phone apps that allow you to browse menus and specials, nab special discounts and offers not available to the general public or even order ahead for expedited pickup.
In other words, once you install the app, you’ve voluntarily turned your phone into a captive advertising device for the restaurant.
Obviously you wouldn’t install the app if you didn’t like the restaurant, but it positions the restaurateur to take a disproportionate percentage of your eating-out dollar. The answer? Just ignore those notifications if you can, or uninstall the app if you have to.
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About the Author
Fred Decker is a writer based in Atlantic Canada, specializing in food and nutrition, personal finance, technology and general business topics. He is a trained chef and former restaurateur, and in earlier careers sold mutual funds and insurance, and was a retail store manager. His work has appeared on the websites of the Arizona Republic, Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; as well as TheNest.com, Livestrong.com, Zack’s, Samsung.com, Vitamix.com and other leading sites.