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On average, we make as many as 200 different decisions regarding food every day: what to eat, choose, order or shop for, even whether or not to add sugar to our coffee. And these decisions also regard the many options we are faced with when consulting a restaurant menu, no matter whether it is a simple bistro somewhere down a side street or a famous multi-starred fine dining restaurant.
This is why the identity card of our meal is just as important as any single dish we choose to taste: hence the development of a specific field of study which, for some time now, has been providing guidance to restaurant owners and managers on how to compile the list of dishes they offer, in an attempt to engage customers in an eating-out experience that starts from the presentation of the written menu.
Menu engineering is a serious and consolidated science: the term was coined as far back as 1982 by two professors of the Michigan State University School of Hospitality Business, and it has now become an academic subject to all effects and purposes. It is taught and studied in universities running tourism marketing or hotel management courses and it combines the psychological theories regarding consumer choices and pleasure with food marketing, with the added advantage of being able to count on the direct experience and instinct of restaurant owners and managers.
What is menu engineering and how does it work?
Its basic theories offer an interesting insight to customers keen to understand the mechanisms and efforts underlying each and every detail inside a restaurant. Starting from the way in which the price is indicated. For instance, menu engineering experts advise against showing the currency symbol, such as that of the Euro or Dollar: it is preferable to indicate nothing but the number, clearly and simply, without anything next to it and, better still, a round number without decimal points. So, the typical supermarket price with its tantalizing offer of 9.99 Euros just does not work in this case. Not if you want to enjoy your meal, that is.
Inspired by the layout of newspaper headlines, the most representative dishes of the restaurant will always be positioned at the top of the list, better still if they are also highlighted in some way. With regard to choosing the name of a dish, the chef is welcome to give full vent to his imagination and instinct but, all the same, some theories claim that family names (such as granny's vegetable soup, and so on) introduce an element of reassurance and affection to the choice of a dish. Likewise, it is always a good idea to leave some space for a detailed (or possibly imaginative and refined) description of the dish, with evocative elements provided by the chef himself.
One menu engineering theory, backed up by psychological field research, goes on to say that it is no coincidence that, when a diner has to choose between two dishes described differently on the same menu, he will always opt for the one that is explained and presented more effectively. Furthermore, if the menu becomes a communications tool, its language may also comprise a sense of humour or hints of nostalgia as though it were a conversation between the chef and his customer.
In a facetious, yet somewhat realistic manner, different customer types have been classified by menu engineering specialists into at least four groups: there are Entrees who like brief descriptions and a relatively stark menu, the Recipes who, on the contrary, need to be tranquillized by lengthy descriptions and reassured by the waiter's use of scientific terms and the Barbecues who delegate their choices to what is often an informal dialogue with staff, while the Desserts are those customers who love to order things that are trendy, quirky or in some way remarkable.