Published September 18, 2012
Everyone's a Foodie
With a cornucopia of cooking shows, chef competitions and even wars fought with cupcakes, food is no less a sport than football these days.
And everybody is in the game. After all, we do have to eat.
"I'm very unimpressed when I go to some place that they say is fabulous, and they give me a tablespoon of food and charge me $100," says Helene Marks, a Tampa, Fla., resident.
Marks' strategy is to hit the happy hours where she can find dinner entrees at half price. Other foodies use the panoply of online coupon sites about restaurant specials, while some go old school -- having dessert or cocktails at home and forgoing fancy waters.
But don't think restaurants are sitting on the sidelines. While customers are getting high-tech with their smartphones and their coupon sites, restaurant owners are studying human behavior, employing "menu engineers" to get diners to spend more.
"They are basing a lot of things they price on what is found in psychology," says William Poundstone, the Los Angeles author of "Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of it)."
Being aware of how restaurants try to make diners fork over a little more cash can make them even more food-savvy when they go out to eat. Here are sneaky ways restaurants try to wrangle money from patrons -- and how to watch out for them.
Symbols? What Symbols?
Get Gregg Rapp talking about menus, and he's off and running. He is known for what's mostly not seen on a menu -- namely, dollar signs. He takes credit for that innovation.
For the last three decades, Rapp's been in the business of menu engineering. He says he made his clients realize that putting those little $'s before prices were causing customers to shy away from pricier items and spend less. Now, from diners to high-end restaurants, it's the rule of thumb to leave them out.
"Dollar signs remind people of money. You open the menu, and there (are) 100 items with 100 dollar signs. If you take those off, it softens the pricing," says Rapp, who lives in Palm Springs, Calif.
Design for a Dime
Menu design is truly an art. A few decades ago, a restaurant would put a lot of money into design because once printed, the business was stuck with it. But with the advent of laser printing, chefs can change the menu and design at will.
A lot of thought goes into how those dishes appear when you crack open the menu. Poundstone says there's a reason why each dish is described elaborately.
"Flowery descriptions. It may sound very simple, but it does have an effect," he says. "You pay more attention to the food and less attention if (you) should pay $17 for a salad."
Then there's the placement of what's on the menu. The term, Poundstone says, is contrasting.
"One of the things they do is anchoring," he says. "They found when it comes to prices, we are very sensitive to contrast." So that dish with caviar for $100 seems outrageous. But the steak beneath it is priced at $50, and suddenly the steak looks like a deal in comparison, he says.
Another common trick is bundling, Poundstone says. You see this at fast-food restaurants with the combo meal, but it also works wonders at high-end establishments offering prix fixe. "It makes it difficult to do comparison shopping," he says. "You won't realize you are paying $13 for two scallops because you don't know what you are paying for each individual thing."
Drink Up, or ...Yeah, Drink Up.
Ordering wine at a restaurant can be daunting, especially when the sommelier hands you a leather-bound book the size of a Bible. And that's just what the restaurant is counting on.
To avoid spending too much, don't be afraid to ask questions. Tell the waiter your price range, says Chip Cassidy, a 40-year wine merchant who teaches classes on the subject at Florida International University in Miami. Many of his students go on to become retailers and to work in restaurants.
Cassidy says the first sucker's bet is to not default to the house wine. "The restaurants will buy the cheapest thing they can get and mark it up as high as they can," he says.
Antonio Pesquera, who's managed restaurants in Florida and Texas, says buying by the glass may also not be the best option. When it comes to wine by the glass, especially red, the restaurants will try to recoup the price of the bottle with the first glass. Why? Because there is no guarantee that a second glass will be poured.
But Cassidy says if you are going to drink wine, do what Bacchus would do: splurge.
"Wine has always been a luxury commodity. You have to have the bucks to drink it," Cassidy says.
Cost of Food Means Cost Per Plate
Everyone knows a filet mignon costs more than a flank steak, but restaurants are finding ways to shave the cost of protein in dishes while still getting you to spend.
Restaurants are experimenting with cheaper pieces of meat, such as pork bellies, goat or tongue, Pesquera says. This is for the obvious reason that it's less expensive, but it also allows the chefs to work with new types of proteins and different preparation styles.
But you need to think about all parts of a restaurant when it comes to the price you pay for a dish. Pesquera says cost comes down to the rule of thirds: a third going toward labor, a third toward overhead, and the rest of the cost toward profit.
Rent, talent of the chef and electricity all go into what will be charged. The way restaurants buy their ingredients also dictate price points, Pesquera says.
A restaurant using local market goods has fresher items that need to move quickly before they go bad. So dishes using those ingredients may be priced lower, he says.
These are the ingredients that often end up in specials. But Pesquera says most restaurants aren't trying to just move the spinach before it goes bad. The chef wants to offer something new to his or her regulars. The key to the special is to ask the price. That alone may sound exotic, but it could also have you spending $75.
For a chef, a special is another way of saying, "I want to offer you something new and refreshing," he says.
Mood Music and the Nitty-Gritty
As part of his job, Rapp will sit in a restaurant for several days before making recommendations to a restaurant. He studies the customers, what they order, how they handle the menu and what background music is being played.
The latter can be very important. Poundstone says a study in a wine shop found when French music was played, more French wine was purchased; likewise, when German music was played, more German wine was bought. A study from Loyola University estimated restaurants and stores that played slow music saw a 38% increase in sales over stores that played loud or fast music.
Rapp says slower music will make diners linger, while faster music helps restaurants turn over tables. He says certain colors, lighting, and whether the menu is large and needs to be flipped through will all dictate how long customers stay to dine -- and spend.
While restaurant owners might be using some savvy tricks, they know that customers are becoming savvier, too, Pesquera says. "It's the world of Google and food shows."