We’ve all been there: You go out to dinner with a set budget, having already decided what to order and set aside the perfect amount for a tip. Then, your bill comes at the end of the night and you’ve somehow spent way beyond your limit.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. There’s science behind persuading you to spend more. You can scope out the city’s best happy hour deal, take advantage of online coupons and even save on your first round of drinks at home, but restaurateurs and menu engineers have nearly perfected the psychology of making you spend money during a night out.
Here are some common tactics restaurants use to get patrons to fork over more cash.
1. Menu minimalism
From eliminating dollar signs to adjusting font weights and kerning, there are all kinds of theories for what draws a buyer’s eye on a menu.
Ryan Gromfin, author, restaurateur and founder of TheRestaurantBoss.com, says the most successful menu designs, for restaurant owners, are those that make price the last thing you see.
“Bury the price in the text,” he says. “Put the price in the description, not in the header of each menu item.” Because numbers tend to automatically look larger than letters, it also pays to reduce the font size of prices so your eye isn’t immediately drawn to them.
Menu engineering, from fonts and lettering to page layout, can influence your choice of meal, but tricking customers isn’t the objective.
“We’re not trying to deceive anyone; we’re not trying to make them solve riddles to figure out the price,” Gromfin says. “I just don’t want it to be the first thing they see. I want them to read a description and fall in love with an item and then see the price.”
2. Server enhancements
Upselling isn’t exactly an industry secret, but it’s important to be aware of the tactic so you don’t catch yourself splurging on something you may not really want.
To encourage upselling, especially on one specific product or special, many restaurant managers will offer incentives for servers. This can include a cash bonus or other reward for the servers who sell the most of that particular item.
Gromfin says the most effective servers offer enhancements not just to pull more money from you, but to actually enhance your meal. “This is giving people a better experience,” he says. “Don’t ask someone if they want avocado on their hamburger because it’s more expensive; ask if they want avocado on their hamburger because it’s a better hamburger with avocado.”
3. Details, details, details
The best servers know that adding flourishes to their description of specials can help upsell a guest, but the same holds true for menu designers. For your entree, would you prefer a “100% Angus beef burger on a golden brioche bun with melted American cheese, fresh green lettuce, juicy Roma tomatoes, caramelized onions and tangy, spicy secret sauce,” or simply a “cheeseburger”?
According to a study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, adding descriptive menu labels increased sales by 27% and also improved attitudes toward the food and restaurant itself and increased repatronage.
4. Trojan horse menu items
Even the most mouth-watering descriptions can be more effective for profits when paired with what Gromfin calls a price juxtaposition or price decoy, which is the practice of “putting something that is artificially substantially more expensive than the rest of your menu and then putting something else directly under it that looks expensive on its own but isn’t when it’s next to the really expensive thing.”
When listed under a $30 steak, the $20 fish entree you were hesitant to order can suddenly seem more appealing to your wallet.
5. Comfort and concept
Once you’ve finished a glass of wine and settled in under a restaurant’s low lighting and comfortable seats, you may be more open and receptive to spending extra time (and money) on your meal.
That comfort level is something that successful restaurants aim to provide their customers through every step in the process, from the moment you enter the restaurant until you leave. “If I don’t feel comfortable, I’m not going to take a risk on a menu,” Gromfin says. “If I walk into a restaurant and there’s no energy and no vibe and the cashier is fumbling through his words, I’m instantly going into protective mode.”
Not only does your comfort mean more profit for the restaurant, it also means you get your money’s worth.
6. Heavy-handed pouring
Anytime your table orders a bottle — whether it’s wine or sparkling water — keep an eye on your server’s attentiveness.
Excellent service is always a plus, but they likely want you to finish that first bottle as quickly as possible so they’ll have the chance to replace it before your meal arrives. This means a timely refill whenever your glass starts to drain.
The same applies to beer or cocktails, which are some of the most profitable items on the menu. The quicker you finish each glass, the more time a server has to sell you on another.
7. Visible desserts
Dessert-savvy restaurant owners may leave dessert menus on the table for you to peruse throughout your dining experience or even have you walk past a dessert display before you reach your table.
As a result, you’re more likely to approach your experience with dessert in the back of your mind. Throughout your main meal, you’ll be more likely to save room so you can splurge on that strawberry cheesecake or apple crumble. There’s nothing wrong with treating yourself every now and then, but make sure you’re not impulse-buying something that may leave you unsatisfied later.
Gromfin says the real secret to any long-lasting and successful restaurant, both in terms of bringing in revenue and in encouraging repatronage, is exceeding expectations. Any good restaurateur knows that menu engineering and tricky tactics will go only so far if you leave unhappy.
If you have confidence in a restaurant and your expectations are exceeded each time, you’re going to feel better about spending more money. Just remember to be smart about the choices you make so you don’t spend the next two weeks after payday regretting that pricey entree or extra glass of wine.