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ON THE MENU, A RICH HELPING OF PSYCHOLOGY

Question for a restaurant-goer: Did you order the grilled yellow-fin tuna because you really wanted it? Or did you order it because it was the first thing you noticed on the menu?

An intriguing new science called "menu engineering" may shed some light on your selections.

Let us begin this discussion, class, by noting that some items on every menu are more profitable than others. To be fair, there are also items that the management is exceptionally proud of.

So when they print a menu, they make sure your eye will zero in on those items. Call it gentle (maybe not so gentle) manipulation. Maybe they draw a box around it. Maybe they use bigger type. Sometimes the color of the ink is changed. There are all sorts of attention-drawing tricks.

Because studies have shown that most restaurant customers spend three minutes or less perusing the menu, the tricks have to work quickly.

It's amazing what menu psychologists know. They know, for instance, that most diners read a menu by going to the middle first. That's where you put the dishes you are interested in selling.

Then the eyes go to the upper left corner, then to the right corner, and finally to the bottom of the page. Another interesting fact is that diners usually order the first- or last-listed item in a category.

Restaurants want your business, and once they have you in the door, they also want you to spend freely. Seminars on "increasing the check average" sell out at industry conventions every time.

That's why you often find appetizers listed so prominently on menus. And desserts printed up so beautifully (sometimes on their own little card).

This is not to say that menu engineering is bad. As long as you know why you're ordering what you order, that is. (And as long as you know how much it will cost. There is an insidious move to run the prices right into the description, obscuring the issue. Sometimes the nasty old prices are eliminated altogether.)

Menu engineering can be educational -- especially if you're enticed to order the dishes the restaurant does well, maybe cultivating a new food favorite as the same time. All of us get into ruts occasionally.

And engineering is not a bad thing, either, if it encourages the kitchen to be more adventurous or if it helps the place run at a profit. A restaurant, after all, is not a philanthropic institution. If it doesn't make money, goodbye.

So a savvy manager prunes his menu well, emphasizing what he calls the "stars" (the dishes that sell a lot and are most profitable) at the expense of what are called "plow horses" in the trade (they sell well but don't make money). And if he's smart, jazzing up the "puzzles," which are profitable but don't sell particularly well. (My thanks to Tony Mauro of Erie Community College for these definitions.)

Tony tells me, too, there are sometimes even "dogs" on a menu -- dishes that don't make much money and don't sell well, either.

For all our sakes, let's hope the restaurants get rid of the dogs.

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