Sneaky Ways Restaurants Get You to Spend More

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There are a lot of ways you could describe dining out, but “psychological warfare” probably isn’t the phrase that springs to mind.

In truth, it’s not a bad metaphor for the barrage of techniques restaurants use to coax a few extra dollars out of you. Restaurants have a number of ways that will have you leaving with a wallet that is more empty than your stomach is full.

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Location, Location, Location

Location is said to be the key to restaurant success, and that applies to the menu as well. Menu design is a whole field of study in itself, and you see its principles in restaurants from casual to fine.

The middle of the page and its top corners are the areas that draw your eye most consistently, so you’ll see high-dollar or high-margin items placed there prominently.

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Highlighting the Most Expensive Item

Another technique places the most expensive item at the top of a menu section, such as the seafood section or the pasta section. It’ll catch your eye there, increasing its chances of selling, and it will also make the rest of the items look cheaper in comparison. A win-win for the restaurant.

The second position and the last position in each section are other places where the eye roams, so you can expect to see high-margin or high-dollar items carefully slotted in there, too.

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Boxes and Borders

Boxes, borders and white space draw the eye automatically as well. A menu item that’s surrounded by a box, or a blank area, almost always will be one the restaurateur really, really wants you to order.

Don’t fall for the allure of the box or border. You’ll likely find a better deal looking elsewhere on the menu.

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Words Are Cheap, So They’re Spent Freely

Suppose you open one menu and see this: “Fragrant slices of Derby cheese on hand-cut fresh brioche, grilled in our sandwich press and served with crisped sage leaves from our chef’s herb beds.” Now consider a similar offering from a second menu: “Gourmet grilled cheese sandwich.”

The first one is likelier to sell and to command a higher price, despite it being essentially the same dish. The difference is largely in the language used to sell it, and that’s what makes menu writing such an art form.

As a rule, the more words a menu lavishes on a specific item, the more the restaurant wants you to buy it. That’s especially true when they use sensory words — “crisp,” “sizzle,” “fragrant” — or emotional ones, such as “traditional,” “comforting” or “Grandma’s.” When you see them, know you’re being consciously manipulated, so focus on what the dish is and not what the menu says about it.

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You might not pay much attention to the music playing at your favorite hangout, but a thoughtful restaurateur certainly does. Hospitality operators have known for decades that up-tempo music tends to make people eat faster, while slower, quieter tunes create a mellow vibe that keeps you in your seat longer.

The music you hear depends on the establishment’s goals. If it’s a busy lunch place that depends on turning tables quickly to make a profit, you can expect up-tempo tunes. At night, in a fine-dining restaurant where keeping you in your seat increases the odds of selling more wine or a dessert, expect low-key music.

You might even find that the same restaurant wears a different face depending on the time of day, using faster music in the daytime for quick turns and mellow music at night for leisurely dining. Either way, learn to tune it out and dine on your own schedule.

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Brighter or dimmer lighting also can affect the pace at which people eat.

Those restaurants that blast up-tempo music often will use bright, aggressive lighting to get you in and out of the door faster, too. Likewise, fine dining establishments generally opt for mellow lighting to get you into a more relaxed mood, hoping that you’ll spend more time — and money — at the restaurant.

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