We’ve all been there: You head out to dinner with a friend, a ballpark amount in mind that you want to spend. You have a great time, laughing and catching up, and before you know it, the wine is flowing, you’ve ordered the extra appetizer, that tasty-sounding special, and life is fantastic—until the check arrives, and it is double what you wanted it to be.
It’s not a coincidence.
Smart restaurant owners know how to boost their profits by using subtle strategies that encourage you to spend more. Here, a restaurant insider and a behavioral psychologist dish about these secrets, so you won’t fall for them.
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A menu’s layout, language, and other factors can subconsciously shift our ordering patterns. For instance, a study at the Culinary Institute of America found that when menus omit the dollar sign (using 25 instead of $25), patrons are less likely to focus on cost.
James Sinclair, principal at OnSite Consulting, which specializes in the restaurant industry, says restaurateurs also entice patrons with juicy descriptions. “It could sound tasty by using keywords like succulent, tender, organic …” he explains. Often the prices come after the descriptions to get your mouth watering before you know what it costs. Prices are often also tucked at the end of a description instead of to the right, so patrons can’t run their eyes down the list and choose the cheapest item.
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Price anchoring attempts to shift your perception of reasonable pricing, like when a real estate agent shows you a house that’s way out of your price range, followed by a more moderate one that feels like a bargain in comparison. Restaurants do this, too.
“Most people don’t order the prime rib, but it serves to make the $18 entrée look more reasonable,” explains Matt Wallaert, lead scientist at Churnless.com and a behavioral psychologist who researches decision-making.
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Specials are usually offered orally—and it’s not just because servers like to practice their memorization skills. Providing tasty descriptions of dishes off the menu means servers can omit prices (and they often do), and restaurants know that people won’t want to appear cheap by asking for pricing information. They also know that, statistically speaking, men on a date are more likely to accept a server’s offer for expensive wine, dessert, or après dinner drinks.
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Color, Music, & More
Environmental factors like a restaurant’s temperature, color, and sound also impact how we order. “If it’s slightly over-warm, a bit noisy, and if colors are more visually exciting, that makes it more cognitively confusing,” says Wallaert.
This confusion can pressure you into making a hasty decision and spending more. “The more worked up you are, the more you’ll eat,” he explains, adding that warm colors like red, orange, and yellow can also make you feel hungry. (Hence why McDonald’s uses that color scheme.)
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Tips for Sidestepping These Ploys
Don’t be shy when asking about prices or portion sizes. Sinclair told us that sometimes the items restaurants push at a lower price are smaller to compensate for the lower price. Some restaurants do this with their prix fixe menus during Restaurant Week. A polite “What is the pricing for the specials?” and “Can you tell me about the portion size?” should do the trick.
Check out the restaurant or bar’s menu online before you go, so you have a ballpark in mind what you want to spend, and can make a clearheaded decision.
If something seems fishy when the bill comes, speak up. Restaurants managers would much rather comp your soda refill or the extra bread you thought was free than have you leave with a bad taste in your mouth and never come back.