Neuro-Menus and Restaurant Psychology


Restaurants are great test labs for testing neuromarketing techniques. It’s easy to change offerings, menus, and pricing, and one gets immediate feedback on what’s working and what’s not. One technique I’ve written about from a product standpoint but which is also used by restaurants is decoy pricing.

Decoy Pricing

In Decoy Marketing, we learned that adding an inferior but similarly priced product to one’s lineup can boost sales of the better product, and in More Decoys: Compromise Marketing we found that an expensive product added at the top of one’s line may not sell well but can boost sales of the cheaper products. These same techniques can be applied to restaurant menus:

…menus contain plenty of subliminal messages.

Some restaurants use what researchers call decoys. For example, 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. [From the New York Times – Using Menu Psychology to Entice Diners by Sarah Kershaw.]

Priceless Prices

Decoy menu items are far from the only neuro-strategy employed by clever restaurant operators. We know that money symbols cause behavioral changes (see Thinking About Money), so menu designers try to minimize pricing cues that might remind people they are paying real money for their meal. Kershaw notes that many restaurants eliminate both dollar signs and cents from prices, e.g., simply “9” instead of “$8.75” to minimize the money aspect. Some menu designers feel prices that end in “9” (e.g., “$8.99”) look hucksterish and cheapen the offering. There’s research to back up some of these practices:

A study published in the spring by Dr. Kimes and other researchers at Cornell found that when the prices were given with dollar signs, customers — the research subjects dined at St. Andrew’s Cafe at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. — spent less than when no dollar signs appeared. The study, published in the Cornell Hospitality Report, also found that customers spent significantly more when the price was listed in numerals without dollar signs, as in “14.00” or “14,” than when it included the word “dollar,” as in “Fourteen dollars.” Apparently even the word “dollar” can trigger what is known as “the pain of paying.”

Of course, there’s plenty of fMRI work to show that buying pain, or the pain of paying, is a real phenomenon.

Aren’t All Eggs Farm Fresh?

Food marketers of all kinds have learned that tweaking copy with good adjectives makes food sound more appealing. Susan Franck, vice president of marketing for family dining chain Huddle House, suggests in Kershaw’s article that one way to boost sales is to add copy and “romance the description with smokehouse bacon, country ham or farm fresh eggs.” In addition, name brands can help sell menu items, explaining why at some restaurants “barbecued ribs” have been relabeled as “Jack Daniels barbecued ribs.”

Design Details

Menus are printed marketing pieces, much like catalogs, magazine ads, etc., and some of the same techniques used in the latter media can be applied by restaurants. Profitable items or other items the menu designer wants to push can be emphasized with boxes, white space, graphic elements or, in some cases, a photo. (Photos are verboten for fine dining establishments, but work well in more casual environments.)

The takeaway is that even small restaurant operators need to pay attention to the details of how their menus are designed. The big chains are already using menu engineering strategies to boost profits, and smaller industry players should be taking notes. If a restaurant is going to pay to print menus, those menus should be the most effective sales tool possible.

  1. Meowgarita says

    This is an amazing article, as is this site. I will be linking to your article (and this site) a lot from now on. Keep up the good work!


  2. Henri Junttila says

    This is fascinating, Roger. I didn’t know half of this stuff, but it makes sense. Just found your blog, but it’s already one of the most interesting I’ve bumped into.

    Hope your new year has started off well! 🙂

  3. Roger Dooley says

    Thanks, Meowgarita and Henri. It’s always fun to see how our subconscious rules our behavior.


  4. CJ Bowker says

    I was just reading about decoy pricing the other day in “Predictably Irrational”. The whole concept of behavioral economics has become extremely fascinating to me especially as it has gained momentum. Great job looking at it from the marketing perspective. This is my first visit and I look forward to reading more of your blog.

  5. Aaron @ Clarifinancial says

    I love it when psychology meets money and large-scale behavior. This article reminds me a lot of some neuro-economics work as well.

    I have one of point of contention though. When menus simple read “9” or “14”, this may be a signal of quality that only more expensive restaurants tend to use, thus causing people to spend more. I offer this hypothesis in contrast to cause of “thinking about money”. If that were so, I believe we would see lower-end restaurants use this method more.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      There could be multiple factors at work with the no decimal, no dollar-sign pricing. I, too, associate such subtle pricing with higher-end restaurants. Lower-end restaurants have one practical matter to deal with: since many of their items are inexpensive, dollar-rounding may not be possible. They are likely stuck with decimals to avoid under- or over-pricing these items.


  6. Jonas says

    Or maybe they dont know the trick?

  7. Chris Houchens says

    Great post — but one gastronomic point. There IS a difference between “country” ham and regular ham.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I suppose it goes without saying that adjectives should accurately describe the menu item or ingredient rather than being employed because they sound good. 🙂


  8. Deborah says

    Last month’s New York Times article by Poundstone provides more details on designing restaurant menus:

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Nice link, Deborah, very relevant to this topic. That menu is a nice example of what we are talking about, though perhaps they should have left off the decimals. I’ve seen some menus where the price is so subtle that it barely seems like an amount of money. That’s the point, I suppose.


  9. Sculptor says

    I stumbled across your site today – a GIANT ‘Thank you’ to you for this! I’ve already bookmarked it, and will definitely use this treasure-trove of information to help me sell my art!


  10. Jeffrey Summers says

    @Aaron Our work with lower end clients has shown over and over again that no such sensitivity to using whole numbers exists. In fact, quite the opposite since the context is usually in consideration of bundled or value offerings. Value perception was increased whenever we utilize the whole number system. Other factors are at work here.

    Great post Roger as always.

  11. Matches Malone says

    Don’t know how I missed this when you first wrote it. Good stuff, now I just have to figure out the appropriate poker application.

  12. Harold (SMM) says

    A great piece, Roger. Thanks. Twittered to the rest of our followers. That bit on decoy pricing is interesting and I’ve found that tweaking the menu with concrete word pictures goes a long way toward triggering positive images and sense memory.

  13. Colin Hall says

    I visited a restaurant in need the other day. They had recently updated their menu and couldn’t eplain their recent drop of 15% sales of their flagship British Fish classic. A quick glance at their highly designed menu and it was obvious to me what the problem was. The chef had omitted the words “Served with Chips or New Potatoes” and although it would be considered a crime in the UK not to serve fish with chips, people are sufficiently reserved not to ask … and so they choose something else.

    Until reading your section on Decoy marketing I would have said they may have just made an error. Now I’m not so sure, they could be gently guiding their customers towards the delicious, cheaper to produce dishes … Clever 🙂

  14. Kyle Clouse says

    Great information and data to back it up.

  15. Amanda Brandon says

    Fascinating article. “The takeaway is that even small restaurant operators need to pay attention to the details of how their menus are designed.” I firmly agree with you on this statement. Independent restaurant owners should put just as much thought in their menu design, writing and pricing as any other restaurant because it is their number one sales tool.

  16. Sundar says

    now I understand why restaurants done mention the $ symbol sometimes….

  17. Barbara Monteleone says

    Very interesting articole! have you got any tips on how to present food itself to make it more attractive and emotively appealing from a neuromarketing point of view?
    Thank in advance for your answer

    1. Roger Dooley says

      That’s a complex subject, Barbara, and probably one for testing vs. opinion. Campbell’s Soup found little factors like steam/no steam and the position of a spoon influenced consumer perception of the soup. As a cheap way to test two portrayals, try an A/B test with Facebook ads. Or, if you have the budget, do a neuromarketing study like Campbell’s did.

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