The impact of menu design

Menus are a restaurant’s most intimate point-of-sale connection to the customer, yet there is little understanding of how the menu actually impacts consumer behavior. Research conducted at the CIA has taken an evidence-based approach to understanding how consumers interact with restaurant menus. In one project, “menu typo-graphy” was investigated to better understand how price presentations impact consumer purchase behavior at St. Andrews Café on the Hyde Park campus. In another study conducted at the Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant on the St. Helena campus, different menu formats were evaluated to determine how to communicate nutritional information to consumers without negatively impacting check average or enjoyment of the meal.

Monetary Cues Can impact Spending

Sybil Yang, formerly a business management instructor at the CIA and currently a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University’s Hotel School, partnered with CIA hospitality and service management instructor Mauro Sessarego and Sheryl Kimes of the Cornell Hotel School to implement a study in St. Andrews Café. The study asks the question, “Does the way in which price is conveyed on the menu impact customers’ purchasing behavior?” Specifically, the team was interested in determining how monetary cues “prime” the senses and create the context for purchasing menu items or stimulating frugality.

Many chefs and restaurant managers are aware of the effects that environmental cues and priming can have on consumer behavior, and have collected empirical evidence over years of experience that suggest they definitely play a role. Some examples are more obvious than others: if customers receive bad service, then the perceived quality of the food, no matter how perfectly executed the preparation, will be distorted.

Menus obviously play a very important and direct role in priming. However, the effects of the menu and how its format influences purchasing in a restaurant setting is not well understood. There are great opportunities at the CIA to better understand the effects of different menu formats on consumer purchase behavior, which is exactly what Yang, Kimes and Sessarego did. This CIA consumer behavior research team developed three different menus, each with different types of pricing presentation: $10.00, 10 and ten dollars.

The menus were distributed to customers (one type per table) and check average monitored. Surveys were also distributed to customers to better understand how the menu influenced their decisions. More than 200 customers took part in the study, and a sophisticated statistical method known as analysis of co-variance was used to control for factors such as party size, dining duration and propensity to spend.

Results from the study showed that when customers were presented menus that had “monetary cues” (i.e., “$” or “dollar”) the spending was reduced by 8.15 percent. However, there was no difference in check averages between the menus containing scripted (“dollar”) and symbolic (“$”) presentations. Along with these results, researchers confirmed that party size, dining duration and table location play an obvious and statistically significant role in total check average. The “10” format led to a higher check average than the “ten”-formatted menus. This was a surprise to researchers, as they had hypothesized that numerical cues would increase price awareness and prime customers to spend less. The researchers concluded that in this restaurant context, “operational factors” such as dining duration, party size and location can have a greater impact on spending than the numerical or scripted typographical cues on the menu. In other words, convivial companionship can trump acute observations of menu formats.

With Nutritional Information, Menu Formatting Matters

Anecdotal insights from a variety of chefs and restaurant managers suggest that communicating health benefits on menus can cause a reduction in purchase frequency and may aggravate a campaign to increase consumer selection of healthful menu options.

A CIA study used the Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant to evaluate the effects of “better for you” menu messaging. Menu item purchase frequency, check average, postmeal surveys and focus groups were used to determine how menu formatting of nutritional information affects consumer behavior. Again, a combination of qualitative and quantitative data was collected to better understand consumer purchase choices.

Three menu formats were tested over a 21-day period: (1) “Better for you” menu items enclosed within a separate boxed section, (2) “Better for you” menu items indicated with a star and (3) a control menu without health attribution called out. On the “better for you” menus, a footnote indicated that these items contained < 500 calories, < 10 g saturated fat, < 500 mg sodium, and < 100 mg cholesterol, and were based on the Mediterranean Diet Principles.
When “boxed” menu formats were used, check average per person was significantly lower ($54.34) compared to the starred ($57.69) and control ($57.55). “Better for you” menu items, which included organic apple salad, coriander lamb carpaccio, Indian spiced chick peas and sautéed spinach (among others), comprised 32, 33 and 35 percent of items sold on box, control and star menus, respectively, but these differences were not statistically significant. All menu items ordered from all formats were highly liked.

Post-dining focus groups comprised of patrons in this study suggested that nutritional information was not necessarily a primary factor influencing their menu item choice. Restaurant context (i.e., dining format or “experience”) and the pure enjoyment of flavor can supersede considerations of health and nutrition. These focus groups confirm the studies that emphasize context as a factor in choice.

These data suggest that in this foodservice context, restaurateurs can include “better for you” nutritional information without negatively impacting profitability or enjoyment, provided that menus are properly designed. Operators can develop effective strategies for promoting healthier menu items, provided that they take an evidence-based approach to evaluating menu format and POS data.

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