It may not be your fault that you spend too much at a restaurant. In fact, restaurants may be tricking you to spend more! Wise Bread has uncovered the 12 ways that restaurants intentionally try to make you dole out more cash. Keep scrolling to learn how they do it — and to make sure you don't fall victim to their tricks!
When I lived in Columbus, OH, my favorite spot was a little place called The Blue Danube, familiarly known as "The Dube." In addition to the usual inexpensive bar fare, the menu there offered the Dube Dinner Deluxe, which paired a bottle of Dom Pérignon with a couple of grilled cheese sandwiches (made with Roquefort cheese) at a cost of $185.
Though I always regarded the Dube Dinner Deluxe as more of a joke than anything else, I've since come to realize that including it on the menu was a savvy marketing strategy on the part of the bar's owners.
Due to a cognitive bias known as anchoring, diners are more likely to buy mid-priced items when the menu highlights a very expensive meal. Just the existence of a high-priced item is enough to make the other prices on the menu seem reasonable in comparison. "Menu engineers" (and yes, that's a real profession) actually describe these very high-priced items as "decoys," since they're only there to soften the sticker shock of other offerings.
Related: 13 Overpriced Restaurant Items
As it turns out, restaurants have a pretty good handle on behavioral psychology — which is why you often end up leaving with a fuller belly and a lighter wallet than you intended. Here are 12 of the sneakiest tricks that restaurants use to get you to spend more.
A well-designed menu is the single greatest asset for a restaurant's bottom line, as it can help to steer customers to the items the restaurant most wants to sell. That's why you'll find nearly all restaurants have many or all of the following features on their menus.
1. Visual Highlights
If you have ever wondered why some menu items are placed in a text box or otherwise bolded, it's because the restaurant wants to draw your attention to the item. Often, the boxed-off menu item is something that is a major profit-maker for the restaurant — like chicken wings, for example. Wings cost the restaurant pennies, so the more they sell, the more they profit.
In addition, menu designers recognize that most people's eyes are drawn to the top right-hand corner, so that is where the big money-maker dishes are often placed. You may have noticed this if you've ever searched in vain for a simple burger on a menu. Burgers, sandwiches, and the like don't tend to be super profitable in some restaurants, so they are often confined to "menu Siberia," where you'll have to read through the pricier items before finding them.
Finally, photographs of food tend to be powerful motivators, which is why restaurants will place photographs of only some of their menu items. The ones appearing in photographs are the most profitable dishes.
Even in high-end restaurants, where photos on the menu are considered a little déclassé, you will often find line drawings or other visual representations of the big money makers.
2. Offering Two Portion Sizes
I often order salads when I dine out, and I have noticed that salads are usually offered in two sizes. This practice is called "bracketing," and it's a no-win for the customer. Most customers will order the smaller/cheaper portion, thinking that the lower price is a better deal. But the menu does not specify how much smaller the cheaper portion will be, and in general the restaurant is actually hoping you'll buy the smaller size. If you do splurge on the larger salad, often the size difference will be made up in inexpensive lettuce.
3. Feeling Like Family
Diners tend to like seeing the names of mothers, grandmothers, uncles, and other relatives on their menus. That's why you'll see something listed as "Bubbie's Chicken Soup" or "Uncle Doug's Famous Burgers" rather than simply chicken noodle soup or quarter-pound burgers.
4. Brand Name Recognition
Going along with that, menu designers have discovered that using brand names helps boost sales. For instance, TGI Fridays offers Jack Daniel's sauce, and many restaurants make sure to specify that their juice is from Minute Maid. The name recognition is enough to help sell the food.
5. Descriptive Language
A study by Cornell University revealed that foods described in a more flowery or beautiful way were more appealing and popular with diners than the same items presented more plainly. For instance, the study would either label a dessert as "New York Style Cheesecake with Godiva Chocolate Sauce" or simply as "Cheesecake." The results showed that diners chose the more descriptive menu items 27% more often than the more plainly labeled items.
Restaurants will often use this effect to highlight a profitable dish — while using much plainer description on a less profitable menu item placed nearby.
6. Price Shenanigans
One of the things you won't find in almost any menu, from a formal foodie haven down to Mom's Diner, is a dollar sign. Omitting the symbol from the price seems to be enough to spur diners to spend significantly more, according to another Cornell study.
In addition, you'll notice something funny about the numbers on menus. You will rarely see any prices ending in a 9. For instance, a dessert will be listed as $4.95 rather than $4.99. Apparently, numbers ending in 5 seem "friendlier," while numbers ending with 9 connote value, but not necessarily quality.
Many restaurants will leave off the cents entirely, listing their dishes as a clean and simple number. All of these gambits make prices abstract, which makes spending feel less threatening and painful.
7. Price Placement
Many menus will avoid listing prices in a column, since that will make it much simpler to compare prices between meals. Instead, many restaurants will bury each item's price beneath the description.
Even if prices are listed across from the dishes, restaurants generally do not print leader dots between the dish name and the price. It's harder to scan across to the price without those dots, meaning you're more likely to focus on the dish.
The menu is not the only way restaurants try to manipulate your spending. Your friendly server is also in on it.
8. Introducing Themselves by Name
When your server introduces himself as Todd and claims he'll be "taking care of you this evening," he's not just being friendly. Studies have shown that restaurant tipping is higher when servers introduce themselves because the interaction feels more personal.
Servers are trained to ask you if you'd like to add to your meal during every step of the ordering process. For instance, when you order a cocktail, your server might offer you a choice of brands of liquor — letting you know that the restaurant carries both Bombay and Beefeater gin, for instance. What the server does not tell you is that there is also a perfectly good and inexpensive gin that the bartender would have used had you not specified either Bombay or Beefeater.
10. Listing Specials Verbally
In addition to upselling, servers are also trained to rattle off the day's specials — from the appetizers to the soups to the entrees to the desserts — off the top of their heads. This practice provides you with a mouthwatering description of the foods that the restaurant is hoping to sell, but it does not give you the price point for each special. Many diners are too embarrassed to ask about the prices of specials, meaning they are surprised when the bill comes.
11. Beverage Timing
You've probably noticed that good servers get your beverage from the bar very quickly after you place your order. That's partially because if the timing is right, you'll run out of your drink either before your entrée arrives or in the middle of your meal — which will often mean you ask for a refill. If you're drinking a bottle of wine, you might find that your server is Johnny-on-the-spot with refills, since you might be persuaded to purchase another bottle if the first one is empty before your plate is.
12. The Midas Touch
Waitresses in particular are known for being very friendly and even lightly touching diners on the shoulder or hand. That's partially because studies have shown that both men and women tend to tip significantly more when their waitresses touch them in a friendly way. Researchers have dubbed this the Midas Touch.
This Midas Touch does not extend to male servers, however. Diners are more likely to see that kind of touch as creepy rather than friendly or nurturing when it comes from a waiter rather than a waitress.
Limiting Your Restaurant Spending
Unfortunately, the restaurants hold most of the cards when you decide to treat yourself to a meal out. Since you are there to enjoy yourself, it can be very difficult to attempt to counteract the psychological tricks since doing so will likely negatively affect your enjoyment.
The best way to deal with these issues is to plan ahead. Bring cash so you cannot spend more than you brought. Check out the menu online and decide what you will order before you arrive. Make sure you ask questions of your server if you're not sure of prices or options. And plan to savor your food and drink, since it will help you be more satisfied and lessen the possibility of over-ordering and overeating.
— Emily Guy Birken
Check out more great stories from Wise Bread:
- 6 Secrets Restaurants Don't Want You to Know
- The 5 Best Credit Cards For Dining Out
- The 10 Most Low-Effort Ways to Save Money Ever