Menu Psychology: The Science Behind Menu Engineering

Menu Psychology: The Science Behind Menu Engineering

For years, restaurateurs have struggled with how to lay out a menu that is informative, readable, and — most importantly — profitable. While the debate on what does or does not work for certain is still raging, psychologists have conducted enough studies to conclusively arrive at a list of practices that every restaurant should use to engineer a menu. With these subtle nods and nudges, you're not only making strides toward profitability, but also customer satisfaction, giving you the best of both worlds.


Menu theory splits foods into different categories to address them. There are:

  • "Stars" (high profit, high sales)
  • "Puzzles" (high profit, low sales)
  • "Plow horses" (low profit, high sales)
  • "Dogs" (low profit, low sales)

The general idea is that you want to show off your stars, improve your puzzles, keep your plow horses, and generally sell or drop your dogs. By figuring out which of your foods fall into these categories, organizing your menu becomes much, much easier.

If you don't have sales figures for your menu items to categorize them, take some time to gather the data so you can make the most profitable decision when creating a layout.

What We Know

There are multiple nuances that restaurants can use with their menus to coax customers into spending on more high-profit dishes. First, refrain from using currency indicators like dollar signs. These symbols make customers feel like they're spending more, even when they're not. Similarly, avoid using prices that include 99 cents on the end, regardless of how affordable the product may be. Because of countless factors, including television infomercials, reading a price listed with .99 on the end is considered to be cheap and unsatisfying. Using .95 to indicate cents is much more successful than .99 since it feels "friendlier," although many restaurants make the choice to do away with decimals all together and simply round to the best dollar. Regardless of your choice, make sure you at least don't use price columns, which call attention to what you're charging, and never use price trails (the "…" before a price), which are even worse.

Wording is equally important since the proper phrasing can make a customer's mouth water before they even see their food, increasing your earnings by as much as 27%. Ethnic ("Italian") or geographic ("Tuscany") terms are especially helpful in conveying flavors or a sense of atmosphere in your restaurant as a whole.

When it comes to selling pricier dishes, it's often a good idea to list them next to other expensive dishes, which will make the lower-cost foods seem more reasonable by comparison. In addition, you can bold or color the typeface of a listing differently to make one dish stand out, or you can add small pictures (like chili peppers or colored dots) to indicate foods that are spicy, vegetarian, and more. It's also easy to encourage customers to sampler platters or boards that have a little bit of everything — for which you can charge more — to help remove their burden of choice. This technique is especially effective for large groups or individual customers who just can't decide on what looks best, turning their indecision into your profits.

Last — even though this doesn't directly pertain to menus — consider playing classical music, if appropriate. Full orchestras, quartets, and classical musicians tend to make customers feel like they're wealthier, leading them to spend more to prove it. The customer then leaves happy after their meal, and you're happy with what they spent. By contrast, beware of pop music, which can make customers spend as much as 10% less than average. However, the kind of music you play can clash with your décor if you pick wrong, so it's most important to be aware of the atmosphere that you are creating.

The Top Right Theory

One of the most well-known theories in menu psychology suggests that the customer looks at the top right of the menu first. Many restaurants use this system in conjunction with other techniques, such as adding an illustration to the upper right corner that highlights the most expensive dish on the menu. Then, they'll list the next most expensive items around it to make them appear reasonable by comparison. This is a sure way to draw the customer's attention to one spot on the menu and then offer your highest-priced goods as the first dishes someone sees.

Other clever techniques include boxing, which draws attention to the highest prices, and bracketing, which includes listing a food with two portion sizes with a price only next to the larger portion. This, again, makes the smaller portion seem more reasonably priced by simple association, even if it's what you wanted to charge for the food in the first place. Anything that doesn't sell well can either be removed or added to the bottom middle of the menu, where a customer's eyes land least frequently.

The Center Theory

Contrary to the top right theory, some believe that the center of a page or layout is the most valuable real estate of a menu. In this theory, customers' eyes move from the middle to the top right, bottom right, upper left, bottom left, and back to the middle. This means that the highest-priced foods you're offering need to be front and center with an eye-catching graphic and clean, sleek layout to make sure you have every customer's attention. The rest of the menu can be organized however you'd like, as the majority of a patron's time will be spent looking away from the corners and sides.

The Neutral Theory

This theory — which is the least popular of these three — asserts that there is no such thing as a menu "sweet spot," saying instead that customers read through a menu the same way they would read a book: left to right, page by page. While this is fairly self-explanatory, it means that you can add pricing, listings, and other menu items wherever you would like since there's no one spot that will get the most attention. This theory gives you the most freedom with your menu, but other theories tend to have better results.


While the jury is out on what theory of menu engineering is most accurate, you can still utilize many of these techniques to call attention to dishes that you want to sell. The choice of which theory you want to use is entirely up to you, and multiple restaurants have had success with all three options. But by rethinking how you market your foods, you can at least start the train of thought to innovating on your established products and practices to create a more engaging, attractive menu that customers will love — and one that will make you more money.

Related resources:

Menu Designer

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Catering Menu Ideas

Protecting Your Recipes: Trade Secrets & Patents

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