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Restaurant Menu Tricks to Get More of Your Money

MikeS forwarded me a really interesting article, Tricks of the Restaurant Trade: 7 Ways Menus Make You Spend.  I knew that restaurants wanted their food to entice you to spend, but I never actually thought about the menu layout being a part of that technique before.

Here is my take on the 7 different marketing techniques mentioned:

1. First in show.

Many restaurants group their offerings under the obvious headings: pasta, beef, seafood, entrees, appetizers and so on. Testing has shown that if you decide on chicken, you are more likely to order the first item on the chicken list. That's where a savvy restaurant will place its most profitable chicken dish.

Okay, I must be one of the weird ones, because I look at pretty much everything, even if I show up with fast food coupons, when eating out and then narrow it down to my 2-3 top choices.  From my most recent experiences, I can honestly say that I have yet to pick the first item on any list.  My husband's eye rolls can confirm that too.  🙂  I can also say that I will never pick sweetbreads.  Not ever.

2. Menu Siberia.

Unprofitable dishes, like a seafood combo plate that require expensive ingredients, and lots of work, are usually banished to a corner that's less noticeable or in a multi-page menu stashed on page five.

That makes sense to me.  Although, if there is a main course or side dish that you rather not mess with, why put it in the menu at all?  My best guess is that they don't want to lose the business of those few people willing to order the banished items.

3. Visual aids.

If you draw a line around it, people will order. That's why many menus box off something they want to promote.

I will admit that the little dashed box around a restaurants steak selection does draw my eye.  BUT, I will still look at everything else so I'll know I am ordering my best option at the time.  Sometimes the steak wins, but usually it's a soup and salad combo or grilled meat of some sort…

4. Package deals

. So you stop by McDonald's for a mid-afternoon burger. When you get to the counter, however, what's really in your face are photos of Extra Value Meals.

My husband used to fall “victim” to this all of the time.  Now that we are on Weight Watchers, we rarely ever want the fries and the drink, so we are saving a little more when we do decide to splurge on fast food.  🙂

5. Dollar-sign avoidance.

Focus groups who've been asked to opine on menus display an acute discomfort with dollar signs and decimals. Keeping money as abstract as possible makes spending less threatening.

I have seen this at all of our favorite once-a-year expensive restaurants.  I'm sorry but not placing a dollar sign next to the “15” or “40” doesn't fool me.  I know I am paying $15 for a really great salad and $40 for a Brazilian meat buffet.  Call me crazy, but it actually annoys me since it seems incomplete without the dollar sign – still expensive, yet incomplete.  Maybe that's just the personal finance geek in me though…

6. The small plate-large plate conundrum.

A restaurant may offer two chicken Caesar salads, one for $9 and one for $12. You may think that you're getting a break ordering the small one, but, says Ez, that's really the size they want to sell. And if a diner decides, hmmm, I may as well get the larger one because I'll never get rich saving three bucks, the restaurant will throw on some extra lettuce, making the price differential almost pure profit.

This one confuses me a little.  If the restaurant will make almost pure profit from selling the larger plate, than why is the small plate the one they really want to sell?

7. Ingredient embroidery

. Foodie-centric restaurants practically list the recipe for each dish making each ingredient sound ultra-special.

Again, I've noticed this all over and it annoys me.  First of all, I don't like them trying to describe a basic ingredient like it is made of gold.  Secondly, they sometimes start calling an ingredient by a special name that I don't know so I want to skip it altogether.  Sometimes I skip the dining out and just use a restaurant delivery service near me. Maybe I am just an odd duck. Then again when comparing Doordash vs Ubereats it seems to me its way better to have food delivered these days.

Which one of these restaurant menu tricks may work on you?  Which ones don't?

25 thoughts on “Restaurant Menu Tricks to Get More of Your Money”

  1. Nicole

    Interesting list.

    I like the details on the ingredients, even the adjectives.

  2. LifeAndMyFinances

    No matter where you go, advertisements will find you and impact your decisions. It’s just how our culture is today.

    I think there may be more jobs in marketing than in any other field these days… at least, that’s what it feels like.

  3. Sustainable PF

    How tricksy!

    #4 never works. When I do get a fast food sandwich I never get the drink or fries – or at least rarely. Instead I may have a diet soda at my desk and some carrots I brought from home as a side dish.

    #6 can work. But I don’t order salad! If a half rack of ribs is $17 and a full rack is $21 I know the bigger plate has more meat and is better value.

  4. Echo

    When I worked in the hospitality industry we would review the “Stars and Dogs” report every 6 months and make adjustments to our menus:

    Stars: High Popularity, High Profitability – Less sensitive to price increases, often boxed or shaded in the menu for more visibility

    Puzzles: Low Popularity, High Profitability – Offered as feature to get more attention, or decrease the price

    Dogs: Low Popularity, Low Profitability – Menu losers, need to consider getting rid of them or raising the price to make them more profitable. Dogs like the “veggie burger” may fill a certain need.

    Plow Horse: High Popularity, Low Profitability – These are the items that are “hidden” on the menu, and the restaurant may consider re-working the recipe to make it more cost effective or raising the price to increase margins.

    By re-working the menu twice a year restaurants increase their profitability by 6-15%.

  5. optionsdude

    Wow. Very interesting and something I never really thought about. None of them really work on me since I eat only one thing at each restaurant that I go to. I never have to look at menus until they tell me they no longer make something or are out of the ingredients which rarely happens. I am a creature of habit. In fact, some of the better waiters will look at me and say, “The usual?” to which I reply, “Yep.”

  6. Everyday Tips

    I am like you Crystal. I generally scan the whole menu. I am pretty basic, so fancy ingredients usually scare me away.

    I usually head to a restaurant with a certain item in mind, so the tricks don’t work very well on me.

    Oh, I hate when they don’t put the dollar sign on the menu.

  7. krantcents

    At California Pizza Kitchen, they offer a half and full salad. The half seems appropriate for one person. We select the same salad and order the full salad and split it versus two half salads. The half costs 8.99 and the full costs 12.49. I am sure most people would buy two half salads.

  8. Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager

    @sustainable PF – I think #4 works on most people. It’s the “good deal” opportunity. Why not upgrade and get twice the amount of food for 10 cents more?

  9. Crystal @ BFS

    @Echo, thanks for that extra info!

    @Jenna, I will agree #4 works a lot, but I think SPF meant it never works on him specifically. 🙂

    @krantcents, that’s a great way to save $5.50!

    @Everyday Tips, yeah, the dollar sign thing is annoying…

    @optionsdude, you never get bored? I rarely order the same thing twice in a row, but I do have a top 5 at most places…

    @SPF, I always get the full rack o’ ribs too and just save the leftovers.

    @Nicole, I like a great description, but I rather them call an onion an onion than find some flowery word to use instead.

    @LifeAndMyFinances, I don’t know…I have a Marketing degree and just never used it, lol.

  10. First Gen American

    I definitely noticed the salad trick. I always order the small now.

    I also hate romantic descriptive menus. Feels like someone’s trying to con me. I still know it’s mac and cheese or meatloaf no matter how you try to spin it..and charging me $19.50 for mac and cheese is highway robbery, especially when it’s supposed to contain gorganzola and it tastes like no such thing (yeah, maybe a tiny sprinkle of the expensive ingredient just so they don’t get accused of lying.)

    So that’s my last annoying thing I hate is when menu’s feature an ingredient on an entree like steak with wild mushroom gravy and the exotic ingredient is virtually MIA. They charge you for being exotic but they cheap out regarding putting a real quantity of it in your dinner.

  11. Norman

    I usually order water with my meal because of the high cost of tea or pop. But on the few occasions I feel like ordering a drink, it really bugs me when they don’t tell anywhere on the menu the price of their drinks. Then when I ask, its usually some outrageous price. Oh, but you say, I get free refills! Yeah, like I’m gonna drink THAT much.

  12. Michelle

    The lack of a dollar sign has never bothered me, which is surprising because one of my pet peeves is units. For example 2 FT is incorrect it is 2 ft. But I wonder what would happen if I tried to pay them 40cents instead of $40…b/c they didnt have units on the menu.
    I tend to like listing of the ingredients b/c I am a picky eater and I need to know if there is chili’s or blue cheese in the meal.
    One of the things that does bother me is if you order something off of them menu but they charge you for something on them menu. For example, sometimes I just want a BLT….it isnt on the menu but I know they have the ingredients. But to bill me they have to choose something in the computer so they will bill me for a chicken sandwich because it has bacon in it…but I never got the chicken.

  13. optionsdude

    No, I don’t usually get bored. I usually go to a certain place depending upon what I feel like eating.

  14. Henway

    I find there’s a lot of similarities between making a good website, and having a good menu. You want the good stuff people want to order (click) above the fold, not near the bottom, or hidden deep inside

  15. Kayla @ Finance.. What?

    I have noticed things like this, but I usually eat at the same places and therefore know what things I like there so I don’t even bother looking at the menu.

    As for fast food, I’ve figured out a way to get more food for less money. I always used to order the McChicken meal (I like fries and a drink).. but now I order TWO Junior Chickens, a small fry, and a medium drink and it’s about $3 cheaper than the McChicken meal which is only one sandwich, not two.

    Because of that if I ever decide to get “unhealthy” fast food – aka if I’m craving a burger or some sort, I’ll usually just stop at a McDonalds and get my $4 winning meal that fills me up for hours.

  16. Paula @ AffordAnything.org

    Some restaurants avoid dollar signs and decimal points, listing an item as “15” rather than $14.99, but others take it a step further and DON’T LIST THE PRICES AT ALL. I’ve especially noticed this in drink menus — no prices are written, and (depending on your dinner guest) you don’t want to appear cheap by asking.

    My other pet peeve is when the waiter lists the specials — again, he/she states the dish but not the price, and again, depending on what type of company you’re with, you may not want to ask.

  17. Crystal @ BFS

    @First Gen, good point! I hate it when the good ingredient isn’t a big part of a dish.

    @Norman, I have stopped asking for drink prices…if they are not on the menu, I order water. Their loss for making it harder than it needs to be…

    @Michelle, I don’t order off menu but that would bug me too if I did.

    @optionsdude, oh, yeah, that makes sense. We only go to our 10 favorite places and order a variety of things, but it would also make sense to just have 20 or more places to choose from…

    @Henway, interesting point.

    @Kayla, I had a trick like that at Wendy’s, lol. 2 double cheeseburgers and a cup of chili for $3.25 with tax. 🙂

    @Paula, that has only happened to me once and I was with coworkers, so I excused myself from the table for a restroom break and tracked down a waiter while I was up to ask about all of the prices…

  18. Squirrelers

    No dollar signs and just plain numbers has the effect on me of making a restaurant seem pricier, actually – in addition to making the place seem just a bit more refined. It’s one of those effects that I never consciously thought about, but now that you mention it that’s the impact it has on me.

    So, given that I’m watching expenses, that tactic would have backfired on me.

    As for the topic of 1/2 orders being more than 1/2 price, Krantcents stated the exact example I right away thought of.

  19. I have become adept at noticing all those things you mentioned. Since I/we have frequented many restaurants and food booths during our younger years (my husband and the kids when they were still with us), I have certainly observed (and become increasingly irritated) by those ploys.
    Nowadays we seldom eat out, mainly because we have to observe our diet and also to rein in on some unnecessary expenses. but for me, the main deterrence is that I feel I do not get the real value for my money when I eke out a huge bill for a seemingly nutritious (over-garnished) but definitely unhealthy menu. There is also the pressure of doing the right choice when in public, trying to look like you know what you’re ordering. What I do is really ask the waiter of the specific ingredients and other things about the stuff so I get to order in an informed way.
    Best thing to do if you cannot avoid eating out is to think beforehand of what you would love to eat and seek for it on the menu. This of course means that you need to have knowledge of the type of food they serve on where you will be going.

  20. MoneySavingEnthusiast

    Great tips! I’ll be sure to bookmark this one. I haven’t heard of these before. Buyer beware.;0)

  21. Ross Mitchell

    Restaurants across the United States are eliminating prices from their drink menus, and failing to print the prices of specials. More and more, we need to ask the price of each item that interests us, or order in the blind, not knowing what we’re spending. I have created a Facebook page called “Price My Menu” to raise awareness so that we can stop this practice before it gets any worse. I invite you to check it out and, if you agree, to “like” it and share it with others. We WILL succeed in eliminating this trend if we work together. Thanks.

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