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Restaurant Psychology

Learn why menus, decor, furniture, food presentation and more influence what we eat and how much we spend in restaurants


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An old (aren’t they all?) Jewish proverb says, “In a restaurant, choose a table near a waiter.” Modern restaurants typically have no problem with good service, because many have psychologists helping design interiors, train servers, carefully word and craft menus, select colors and teach the art of upselling.

My favorite go-to restaurant for Italian food in San Diego is Arrivederci in Hillcrest. It’s unusual for a week to go by without eating there. Having been on vacation this past week meant an overdue trip to see Antonino, Lucio and the crowd of regulars who know full well which wine and food we order, so much so that we don’t even actually order anymore. They just bring our normal fare.

This got me wondering about other restaurants — the psychology behind what works and what doesn’t, menu design, colors and so on. Especially with so many new restaurants opening in San Diego, understanding the stomach-mind connection is appropriate.

My research, starting with the National Restaurant Association, led me to understand that we do not decide what to order on our own. The menu tells us what the restaurant owner wants us to buy. The placement of menu items, the graphics, and the item descriptions all send messages about what the restaurant owner wants us to order. Studies show the same item on a menu will sell differently if placed differently.

“Decoy pricing” is a favorite of some restaurants. According to The New York Times in an article about menu psychology, “Some restaurants use what researchers call decoys ... they may place a really expensive item at the top of the menu, so that other dishes look more reasonably priced; research shows that diners tend to order neither the most nor least expensive items, drifting toward the middle. Or restaurants might play up a profitable dish by using more appetizing adjectives and placing it next to a less profitable dish with less description so the contrast entices the diner to order the profitable dish.”

Cornell University researchers helped restaurants understand that price presentation affects sales. Simply stated, diners who were given menus with simple numerals unaccompanied by a dollar sign spent significantly more than those diners who had menus with dollar signs, or with the price spelled out “fifteen dollars.”

Ever order eggs that weren’t “farm-fresh?” Probably not in restaurants that use marketing know-how to sell their food. Romancing the descriptions with words like “smokehouse bacon,” “country ham,” or my favorite, “farm-fresh eggs,” usually gets our mouths watering and our wallets opening. For example, if an item is fried, it might better be described as “hand-battered.” Who likes fried these days?

Research demonstrates that descriptive labels increases sales by as much as 27 percent — so don’t be surprised by geographic labels in menus such as “Southwestern Tex-Mex salad,” nostalgia labels like “ye olde cheese bread,” sensory labels such as “buttery soft pasta” and even name brands such as “Jack Daniels sauce.”

Ever find a waiter or waitress who touches you on the shoulder? Research demonstrates that those who touch customers typically get a bigger tip. The psychology behind this strategy is that touching denotes closeness, and we tip more when we feel closer to our waiter or waitress.

Many smart waiters or waitresses knows how to “upsell” us as well. Order a vodka martini and you might hear, “Grey Goose is available, and Kettle One and Absolut,” with the order very precise — most expensive to least expensive.

The colors in your favorite eatery are also important. Red is considered an appetite stimulator, while blue and purple can make you lose your appetite, though blue is relaxing. The latter colors are too closely associated with toxins, food research shows. Yellow annoys people and gets people moving out much quicker. Fast food joints love yellow.

Regardless of colors, study after study reveals that nobody likes staring at a wall, so restaurants use mirrors to avoid the lonely, isolated feeling diners dislike. Anchored tables arranged in the middle of the room make diners eat faster, according to restaurant psychologists.

What about how close you are to other dining guests? Restaurant psychology design experts Stephani K. A. Robson and Dr. Sheryl E. Kimes note from a study, “Guests seated at tables that were larger than necessary (that is, parties of two seated at four-tops) did not have significantly different perceptions of satisfaction or spending behavior from those seated at right-size tables (that is, at deuces). However, parties at closely spaced tables reported significantly reduced satisfaction, as well as lower spending per minute when compared with widely spaced tables.”

Reminds me of George Carlin’s famous line about restaurants: “The other night I ate at a real nice family restaurant. Every table had an argument going.”

Kimes also noted the following: Most people have little patience for tables that are not ready when they’ve made a reservation; most people don’t mind a “hold a table no more than 15 minutes” policy for late arrivers; most people don’t like having to guarantee a reservation with a credit card; and nobody likes being rushed out of a table for waiting diners.

Restaurants playing slow music had longer waits for tables and much higher customer bar bills. Interestingly, although restaurant patrons did not eat more in the slow music condition, they drank far more.

Have you ever noticed the garnishes on your dishes? One rule psychologically astute restaurants follow is to serve bright, contrasting colors, which is why we find colors on the opposite side of the color wheel looking especially dynamic on a plate.

And have you ever noticed that smart restaurants place an odd number of items on a plate? Foodie magazine Chow advises, “Having an odd number of foods (three is best) on a plate gives the dish visual tension, making it exciting to look at. Even numbers look too geometrically static and staid. So, five scallops are better than four. Steak, mashed potatoes, and green beans, with a separate plate for the salad.”

Chow also instructs savvy restaurant owners to never hide the main course in sauce, so “the texture and color of the main course are visible.” The magazine’s last tip? “Those random orange slices and parsley sprigs are a terrible idea for restaurant garnishes, and do no better at home. Garnishes should be two of these three things: pretty, delicious, or functional.”

So there you have it. Watch for these mind games next time you go out for lunch or dinner. Oh, and if you are interested, my fave at Arrivederci is the penne with “Mama Rosa” sauce and a glass of pinot noir — you won’t find it on the menu that way but I’m sure there is some psychology in that delicious, simple dish. Leaves me feeling happy!

For more than 30 years, Dr. Mantell has successfully been bringing upbeat, friendly and helpful psychological insights to individuals, families and businesses in San Diego as a clinical and corporate psychologist in private practice. He's been a regular on Good Morning America, KFMB-TV News 8, has appeared on Oprah, Larry King Live, the Today show, authored two best-selling books and speaks regularly for audiences throughout the country. He can be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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