(MoneyWatch) I am totally proud. My younger son Ezra recently graduated from the CIA. Not the government spy agency but the Culinary Institute of America. Based in Hyde Park, N.Y., it trains chefs and restaurant managers, and according to its website is "recognized as the world's premier culinary college with an industry-wide reputation for excellence." I hope so, because, over the years, we paid a lot of tuition.
Ezra's education, however, included mastering some skills almost as surreptitious as those employed by a secret agent. Example: Menu engineering, the topic of his honors thesis.
"The menu is the heart of the restaurant. It embodies the restaurant's demographics, concept, physical factors and personality," Ezra wrote in solid prose that is an obvious genetic inheritance from his mother. But don't kid yourself. A menu, he confided to me in an exclusive interview, is also a sales vehicle, and many restaurants -- smart ones -- use it to get you to eat right. And, we're not talking about your health, but about their profits.
Restaurant dishes generally divide up four groups, says Ez. First come stars -- popular items for which diners are willing to pay much more than the dishes cost to make. Example: Penne with vodka sauce. Plow horses, are popular but less profitable items, like steak. Puzzlers are high-profit items that are tough to sell, say, sweetbreads. Finally, there are dogs that not many people like and aren't profitable. Why they are on anybody's menu, I'm not sure. Clever menu engineering exists to steer you to stars and puzzlers, to spend as much as possible and to enjoy doing it. After all, restaurateurs want repeat business.
There's nothing wrong with any of that. Nevertheless, before you order your next Lasagna Classico at Olive Garden, Crunchy Rabbit at Jean Georges in Manhattan or Egg McMuffin at You-Know-Where (MCD), you might want to be aware of these seven common menu ploys.
First in show. Many restaurants group their offerings under the obvious headings: Pasta, beef, seafood, entrees, appetizers and so on. Testing has shown that if you decide on chicken, you are more likely to order the first item on the chicken list. That's where a savvy restaurant will place its most profitable chicken dish. A really sharp chef might put a puzzler like sweetbreads first in a grouping. "They only cost about $3, so the margin is huge," says Ez. Of course, you've got to hope that enough people relish eating sweetbreads.
Menu Siberia. Unprofitable dishes, like a seafood combo plate, that require expensive ingredients, and lots of work, are usually banished to a corner that's less noticeable or in a multi-page menu stashed on page five.
Visual aids. If you draw a line around it, people will order. That's why many menus box off something they want to promote. Chicken wings are a prime example. They're "garbage," says my son of one of my favorite noshes. "They cost pennies so they're huge profit items." Photos also sell dishes. An album of what look like ten-inch-high pies set on each table at Bakers Square make it hard to resist ordering a slice.
Package deals. So you stop by McDonald's for a mid-afternoon burger. When you get to the counter, however, what's really in your face are photos of Extra Value Meals. You figure, says Ez, "Hey, I could eat two patties, I could use some fries, and now I'll get a soft drink too." The single burger you intended to buy is off in menu Siberia, on the board far to the right, but you've already spent more than you intended. A small percentage of the chain's 47 million customers dropping a few extra bucks each day translates to millions in additional revenue. Another example: Olive Garden's Bottomless Pasta Bowl ($8.95). "It's very unlikely you're going to eat more than two bowls," says Ez. And, as one whiny diner noted, you'll probably scarf so many free breadsticks first that you won't have room for all those noodles.
Dollar-sign avoidance. Focus groups who've been asked to opine on menus display an acute discomfort with dollar signs and decimals. Keeping money as abstract as possible makes spending less threatening. Many high-tone foodie establishments that charge an arm and a leg for, say, a bowl of lentils and groats now omit such crass symbols from their menus -- like Spoonriver, a place I like in Minneapolis. I almost don't notice that I've paid $12.50 for a rather small chicken quesadilla. Once upon a time, menus used leader dots (....) to connect the entree with the price. You won't find them much anymore either.
The small plate-large plate conundrum. A restaurant may offer two chicken Caesar salads, one for $9 and one for $12. You may think that you're getting a break ordering the small one, but, says Ez, that's really the size the restaurant wants to sell. And if a diner decides, hmmm, I may as well get the larger one because I'll never get rich saving three bucks, the restaurant will throw on some extra lettuce, making the price differential almost pure profit.
Ingredient embroidery. Foodie-centric restaurants practically list the recipe for each dish making each ingredient sound ultra-special. (An item is more likely to sell if it dwells on the fact that, say, the cheese came from cows at the Brunschwagergrunt Farm in western Wisconsin or that the organic mushrooms were raised by a former duchess with an advanced degree in microbiology.) Even at a humble eatery, however, a dish labeled Mom's Special Mac and Cheese or "The BeeBop Bar's Mac and Four Cheese casserole" sells better than just plain old mac and cheese. "It may not be any more special than what you get somewhere else, but you'll start to think you can only get it there," says Ez. And that will keep you coming back again and again.
You won't find these gambits at every eatery. Not all restaurant owners plan their menus as carefully as they should. If they did, contends my kid, maybe they would stop placing entrees in the middle of the right hand page, prime menu real estate, because "Most people who go to a restaurant are going to order an entree anyway," he says. "That's where I'd put desserts."