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There's more to that menu!

Menus aren’t just carriers of dish names but more, as Brian Wansink, a Cornell University psychologist who studies eating behaviour, discovered in his new paper. He says that often, menus trick us into ordering food that we might not have really wanted. Intrigued, the guide chatted up with city restaurateurs and menu designers to find out the real deal

It was a Friday night, and post work, like most of our ilk, we headed to a restaurant to chill and indulge in lip-smacking food. But the eternal question about choosing from a vast menu surfaced; piqued by curiously named dishes, we fell for the bait. While some were hits, a few other dishes made us wonder if we would probably have tried it had we not succumbed to the temptingly framed words.

Menu

What the paper revealed?
If you’ve faced a similar situation, you’ll identify with what Brian Wansink, a Cornell University psychologist and author who studies eating behaviour, concluded in his new paper. According to Wansink, restaurant menus often trick us into ordering food that we might not order otherwise or might not have really wanted. His findings include that patrons are more likely to order a menu item that’s set apart somehow. Along with that, people are more likely to be attracted to items with fanciful names. Wansink’s team also found out that the sales of items with descriptive names increased 28% over the same food with a plain name.

Pizza Rucola from Aqaba. Fancy names are said to be major crowd pullers
Pizza Rucola from Aqaba. Fancy names are said to be major crowd pullers

Menu does it all
Siddharth Bhatia, the owner of Tilt All Day, concurs the findings. “If a dish sound enticing and also names the interesting ingredients that it is made of, people are more willing to experiment with their orders,” he says.

Menu

So is the case with Mihir Desai, co-owner, Masala Zone, who says that menus make a lot of difference. He gives an example, “At our restaurant, even a simple, well executed tent card talking about specials has done wonders. This strategy helps us up-sell and introduce new dishes to our patrons.”

Menu

Not for everyone
But Bandra-based Aoi’s partner, chef Mitesh Rangras feels that creating curiosity about food only on the basis of how the menu is presented is not easy in a full-fledged restaurant.

“It may work in a fast food joint with lesser items, where you may barely have time to order and where you tend to pick up what catches your attention,” he points out, explaining that with respect to sit-down dining concepts, a gimmicky menu is often a one-time wonder, which may create the required result and curiosity factor in the beginning, but repeat orders can only be ensured based on whether the customer liked the flavour, quality and the entire dining experience.

Menu

“You can’t fool people into repeat ordering, as a serious menu is all about the food and this is what the customer ultimately looks for. It needs to look good, definitely so, but ultimately it is the customer experience test, manned by taste, service and personal preference,” he stresses.

Looks matter, here too!
So, what makes for an attractive and interesting menu? Karthika of Zushk Design, who has designed menus for restaurants such as Aoi among others, elucidates that most importantly, the theme of the restaurant and the amount of information that needs to go in are the factors that are kept in mind. “The vision we keep in mind while designing any menu is to de-clutter and strike the right balance between too much or too little information,” she informs.

A menu also needs to be pleasing to the eye, yet informative and needs to be a ready reckoner/a guide to making choices that can help reduce the time a server may need to explain a dish or make the choice, adds Karthika, apprising that the menu should be self-explanatory with adequate categorisation of food and concept, and in some unique way, a menu should be personal and relatable to the diner.

Karthika’s partner Anuradha adds on the process of creating a menu, “The restaurant colour, its theme, and logo are the main factors based on which menu elements such as colours and fonts get decided. Also, the font size could depend upon the target audience of the restaurant as well as the lighting of the restaurant — whether it is dimly lit or well illuminated, whether it is an indoor or an outdoor space.” She reminds that it is imperative to choose colour schemes and font sizes that are pleasing to the eye and can be easily read.

As far as the key elements that they use to coerce patrons to try something specific, the designer says that pairing food and drinks, and highlighting this via a box or a separate section is an oft-used approach works well. “Another aspect could be having exotic names to highlight the specials or the special section altogether — another segregation could be finding out lesser-known ingredients used in the making of that dish and having a small comment about why is it so unique,” clarifies Anuradha.

Patrons come first
Anuj Thapar, director and chef at Aqaba is of a similar view and avers that when creating the template for the menu, there should be an effective mix of brand elements along with a well-planned layout. “Aqaba’s menu was designed with clean lines, fonts and colours, since it is quite text-heavy. We also tried to keep the look and feel of the menu natural and light, reflecting the theme and cuisines on offer,” he reveals.

On the other hand, many restaurants keep their target audience in mind as the primary factor. “We wanted to keep the menu pretty straightforward, as we wanted guests to feel comfortable and know exactly what they are ordering and what to expect. Being located in Kamala Mills, our primary target is the corporate crowd, and so the menu was also designed keeping them in mind,” says Bhatia.

Desai, whose Masala Zone is an Indian
family restaurant, tried to make his menu “universally applicable and understandable, as much by a child as by the grandparent of the household”. So, as we discovered, the menu is the king.

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