The Science of Menus or How Red Lobster Became Classy


Think they just toss some items on a menu under their appropriate categories? Think again.

There’s an actual science behind where each item is placed on a menu in order to get you to spend the most money.

Here’s some of their secrets. You can check out the entire article on Forbes Traveler.

One of the reasons the tabs are going up is because of something you probably don’t realize. Then again, you’re not supposed to realize it: the secret science of menu psychology. Smart chefs (or their menu consultants) know that when most of you open a menu, your eyes go right to the top of the page on the right side. And, armed with that knowledge, chefs place the menu item that will give them the most profit at the top of the page. Hence, it soon becomes their biggest seller. Then, your eyes normally drift to the center of the page. That’s where many chefs place their absolutely most expensive item. They do that not because they expect you to buy that item, but because the psychology of menus indicates you’ll probably then look at the items immediately above and below the high ticket item and order one of those. Again, those two items rank second and third for generating profits.

There’s also a psychology to how menu items are priced.

• Not surprisingly, there is a migration toward higher price points. People buy brands, and food is an easy indulgence. That’s why we buy $4 Starbucks over fifty cent convenience store coffee.

• Price rounding psychology only works with lower-priced items: Someone will buy a $1.99 taco, but not one sold at $2. On higher priced items at upscale restaurants, it’s all called hip, minimalist pricing, and items are rounded up. That big steak in the fine dining restaurant isn’t $38.95, it’s $39.

• What’s the price barrier? $20 is the tipping point for casual dining restaurants. You won’t see many items at PF Changs or Cheesecake Factory above $19.99.

• Restaurants have also learned that pictures sell food, but pictures also pull down the perception of overall quality. Denny’s and IHop use pictures, but Red Lobster is becoming more upscale and stopped using photos last year. Their price points – and their profits – went up.

Not only has Red Lobster stopped using pictures, but they’re totally reinventing their restaurants.

A few weeks ago, the seafood chain, owned by Orlando-based Darden Restaurants, launched a marketing campaign designed to highlight an expanded fresh fish menu and other new culinary creations.

Sensing that some consumers associate Red Lobster with frozen seafood and dining rooms cluttered with fishing memorabilia, executives have been tweaking its look and feel.

Several months ago, Red Lobster introduced a daily rotating menu of fresh fish selections.

The chain also tested a sleeker restaurant design — meant to evoke the Maine coast — that it says will be used as the model for new restaurants. (from the Orlando Sentinel)

And on a related note, Red Lobster actually won an award for the Best Menu Revamp in 1999, but after reading the above you can probably tell that didn’t work out so well.

Lets just hope they keep that delicious cheesey wine biscuits on the tables. In case you haven’t tried them, or if you just want to make it at home, here’s the recipe.

Photo from Flickr.


17 comments so far

  1. Cindy on

    wow it’s really helpful~!
    thanks for the information!

  2. SteamyKitchen on

    ok. then i just flat out get suckered every time at restaurants.

  3. cincodemayo1 on

    Something tells me you’re not the only one…

  4. Shawn on

    There’s an article near the back of HOW Design’s August 2007 magazine that details the fine art (and design) of a properly proportioned, well laid out menu that sells.

    Much like you stated, the design of menu is critical. Everyone when opening a menu automatically views the items in a ‘V’. From top right, skimming down to bottom middle and back up to top left.

    The most important thing for a restaurant to do is hire an experienced graphic designer, Because not only will they be absolutely delighted to work with you, they will enjoy the tasty challenge of menu design.

  5. fluffyllama25 on

    This was neat! Very interesting.

  6. andyfox1979 on

    totally true.. i cant speak for red lobster classing it up though.. still a dump in my area (Los Angeles)

  7. micheleroohani on

    i was looking for a review of pizzeria mozza and i got to your post – very helpful thank you – your blog looks very fresh – check out my posts on food if you get a chance.

  8. Top Posts « on

    […] The Science of Menus or How Red Lobster Became Classy [image] Think they just toss some items on a menu under their appropriate categories? Think again. There’s an […] […]

  9. trugiaz on

    Interesting, I’ll see for myself next time. thanks for the info anyway

  10. […] See: The Science of Menus or How Red Lobster Became Classy […]

  11. maliha11 on

    that was an amazing post … thanks

  12. engtech on

    It’s scary how much marketing and psychology distort our choices.

  13. theprotagonist5 on

    I understand their profit motives for trying to push it up-market, but I have to doubt the ability of the actual restaurants to deliver on a better experience. The last time I was at one (2 years ago) it was no better than getting microwaved food that had been dumped on a plate. The reason Red Lobster has been low market was because they made cost cutting choices in hiring, food selections, food quality and always went with the WalMart lowest price advertising strategy. They are going to have to change everything from the uniforms of the waiters to the decor in these restaurants to the quality and freshness of the food to get my money. (globalization is probably allowing them cheap farm raised south american fish at cheap prices that make this makeover possible)

  14. Ducker on

    everything has a hidden agenda doesnt it…fortunately seafood is really tasty, so I dont mind

  15. […] This site has a post about a recent Forbes Traveler article that talks about the psychology of menu development. […]

  16. tyler on

    hey i think this is awsome everybody peace out

  17. linda on

    Appreciated the article; I’ll be sharing it with my middle-school language arts classes. One of their writing assignments is to rewrite a menu, and you’ve given us more to consider.

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