Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Tricks of the Restaurant Trade: 7 Ways Menus Make You Spend

I've long noticed the subtle tricks employed by restaurants to draw patrons' attention from the meal for which they came in and to the extras - appetizers, desserts, expensive beverages - they had no intention of ordering when they sat down. We've all been served by that really pushy waiter or waitress who strongly suggests the potato skins as we're perusing the entrees. Most of us have certainly walked into a fast food establishment intent on ordering a single cheeseburger and nothing else, only to be confronted by the menu board that tells us that for an additional $2.99 we can get two cheeseburgers, plus fries and a Coke - and we can supersize the whole thing for just fifty cents more! Why, we'd be crazy not to!

I came across this article on Yahoo this morning, and found it quite interesting. It probably won't change the frequency with which I eat out, nor will it affect the choices I make when I do; I'm not ordering the potato skins unless I want them - or more likely unless everyone at the table wants them. (Have you seen the size of a standard order of potato skins at a family-dining restaurant? It's practically a meal in itself.) Anyway, without further ado:

I am totally proud. My younger son Ezra recently graduated from the CIA. Not the government spy agency but the Culinary Institute of America. Based in Hyde Park, N.Y., it trains chefs and restaurant managers, and according to its website, is "recognized as the world's premier culinary college with an industry-wide reputation for excellence." I hope so, because, over the years, we paid a lot of tuition.

Ezra's education, however, included mastering some skills almost as surreptitious as those employed by a secret agent. Example: Menu engineering, the topic of his honors thesis.

"The menu is the heart of the restaurant. It embodies the restaurant's demographics, concept, physical factors and personality," Ezra wrote in solid prose that is an obvious genetic inheritance from his mother. But don't kid yourself. A menu, he confided to me in an exclusive interview, is also a sales vehicle, and many restaurants -- smart ones -- use it to get you to eat right. And, we're not talking about your health, but about their profits.

Restaurant dishes generally divide up four groups, says Ez. First come stars -- popular items for which diners are willing to pay much more than the dishes cost to make. Example: penne with vodka sauce. Plowhorses, are popular but less profitable items, like steak. Puzzlers are high-profit items that are tough to sell, say, sweetbreads. Finally, there are dogs that not many people like and aren't profitable. Why they are on anybody's menu, I'm not sure. Clever menu engineering exists to steer you to stars and puzzlers, to spend as much as possible and to enjoy doing it. After all, restaurateurs want repeat business.

There's nothing wrong with any of that. Nevertheless, before you order your next Lasagna Classico at Olive Garden, Crunchy Rabbit at Jean Georges in Manhattan or Egg McMuffin at You-Know-Where, you might want to be aware of these seven common menu ploys.

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. A really sharp chef might put a puzzler like sweetbreads first in a grouping. "They only cost about $3, so the margin is huge," says Ez. Of course, you've got to hope that enough people like sweetbreads.

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.

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. Chicken wings are a prime example. They're "garbage," says my son of one of my favorite noshes. "They cost pennies so they're huge profit items." Photos also sell dishes. An album of what look like ten-inch-high pies set on each table at Bakers Square make it hard to resist ordering a slice. Fancy-schmancy restaurants, however, like this one in Westport, Conn., consider photos déclassé; from them the most you'll get is a sketch or two.

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. You figure, says Ez, "Hey, I could eat two patties, I could use some fries, and now I'll get a soft drink too." The single burger you intended to buy is off in menu Siberia, on the board far to the right, but you've already spent more than you intended. A small percentage of the chain's 47 million customers dropping a few extra bucks each day translates to millions in additional revenue. Another example: Olive Garden's Bottomless Pasta Bowl ($8.95). "It's very unlikely you're going to eat more than two bowls," says Ez. And, as one whiny diner noted, you're like to scarf so many free breadsticks first that you won't have room for all those noodles.

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. Many high-tone foodie establishments that charge an arm and a leg for, say, a bowl of lentils and groats now omit such crass symbols from their menus -- like Spoonriver, a place I like in Minneapolis. I almost don't notice that I've paid $12.50 for a rather small chicken quesadilla. Once upon a time, menus used leader dots (... .) to connect the entree with the price. You won't find them much anymore either.

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.

7. Ingredient embroidery. Foodie-centric restaurants practically list the recipe for each dish making each ingredient sound ultra-special. (An item is more likely to sell if it dwells on the fact that, say, the cheese came from cows at the Brunschwagergrunt Farm in western Wisconsin or that the organic mushrooms were raised by a former duchess with an advanced degree in microbiology.) Even at a humble eatery, however, a dish labeled Mom's Special Mac and Cheese or "The BeeBop Bar's Mac and Four Cheese casserole" sells better than just plain old mac and cheese. "It may not be any more special than what you get somewhere else, but you'll start to think you can only get it there," says Ez. And that will keep you coming back again and again.

You won't find these gambits at every eatery. Not all restaurant owners plan their menus as carefully as they should. If they did, contends my kid, maybe they would stop placing entrées in the middle of the right hand page, prime menu real estate, because "most people who go to a restaurant are going to order an entrée anyway." he says. "That's where I'd put desserts."

Thursday, May 5, 2011

What's a "food desert"? Hint: It's not something you eat when you've finished your dinner.

Imagine, if you will, a life where shopping for groceries entails paying a visit to a gas station convenience store. For a significant number of Americans who live in "food deserts" - areas of the industrialized world where healthy, affordable food is difficult to obtain* - this is an unfortunate reality. I've never lived in an area without easy access to multiple supermarkets and grocery stores, and I didn't think anyone in America did. Certainly not in my home state of California!

This article put some things in perspective for me.

Nearly 1 million Californians live in "food deserts" where there is no nearby supermarket or large grocery store, according to data released this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Displayed in an interactive map, the data shows that nearly 13.5 million people – 46 percent of whom are classified as low-income – live in food deserts nationwide. Nearly 45 percent of the 976,467 Californians with low access to retail food outlets are low-income.

"The data is a key piece in how we get from the problem to the solution," said Judith Bell, president of PolicyLink, an economic and social equity research and advocacy group. "It will be a great resource for community leaders, for supermarket operators, for policymakers, to understand this incredibly significant and long-term problem."

Still, the information is limited because it's based on 2000 census data and a list of supermarkets and large grocery stores compiled in 2006, she said. The USDA plans to update its map with 2010 census data next year, she said.

"We know there are some places that are food deserts – that if you were actually walking through the blocks or walking through the community, you'd recognize it as a food desert," Bell said. "But that would not show up on the map."

To locate food deserts, the USDA evaluated population and income data in census tracts – relatively small areas within a county – and locations of supermarkets and large grocery stores.

In general, census tracts were identified as low-income if they had a poverty rate of at least 20 percent. People in those areas were considered low-income if their annual household income was 200 percent or less of the federal poverty level – $34,100 for a family of four in 2000. They had low access to a supermarket or large grocery store if they lived more than one mile away in an urban area or more than 10 miles away in a rural area.

Under these definitions, about 10 percent of the 65,000 census tracts in the U.S. contain food deserts.

People in these food deserts may travel outside their neighborhoods to find fresh and perishable foods, or they may end up paying more for the same products at smaller grocery or convenience stores, according to the USDA.

Food deserts can be found in 371 California census tracts, according to USDA data. The vast majority – 85 percent – are in urban areas. More than 1.9 million people live in these census tracts, and about half of them have low access to retail food stores.

Yet in 70 census tracts in the state, the entire population – more than 300,000 people all together – do not live near a supermarket or large grocery store.

"There are a lot of locations across the state of California where a grocery store would be viable," Bell said. "And then there are some places, in particular in rural communities, because this is a rural and an urban problem, where a full-scale grocery store could not be successful. In those communities ... we need to look for alternatives."

A bill by Assembly Speaker John Perez that would expand access to healthy foods in underserved communities calls for ending food deserts in seven years. AB 581, the California Healthy Food Financing Initiative, is pending.

The next time you find yourself looking for a parking space at your local supermarket, bemoaning the crowds that showed up to buy groceries at the exact same time you did, and cursing the shopper who got into the express lane with more items than the store allows, be thankful that you have the opportunity. It sounds like many people wish they could be in your shoes.

* Definition courtesy of Wikipedia