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The world continues to face rising obesity rates. Simultaneously, the restaurant industry continues to experience increasing profit margins and overall success, leading many critics to point fingers at these eating establishments as the ones to blame. We suggest proactive strategies restaurants can adopt to maintain or even increase sales, while guiding customers to make healthier decisions. In order to successfully balance the profitability of the establishment with increasing choice and consumption of healthier foods, we suggest three menu-engineering actions: 1) shifting attention, 2) enhancing taste expectations, and 3) increasing perception of value.
The first step in this process is to determine which health items should be targeted. One method involves sorting the menu items into four categories: High-margin Stars, High-margin Puzzles, Low-margin Favorites, and Forgotten Foods.
Once the targeted healthy items have been established, the first menu-engineering strategy is to shift diners’ attention to these items. This proves difficult because many customers may select from their default choices, or favorite foods, without even considering other items on the menu. To influence customers to broaden their consideration set, restaurant menus can draw attention to targeted healthier options, by rearranging the menu or using salience builders such as contrasting font, font color, font size, pictures, or icons. At fine dining restaurants, healthy items can be called “House Specialties” or similar names that indicating that the items abide by consumption norms— a strategy that has been shown to increase sales by 28%.
Another important factor when designing a menu is the perceptions of how the food will taste. Studies show that taste, while it has physical and chemical properties, can also be quite subjective in interpretation. Therefore, descriptive menu names can increase the sensory perception and overall evaluation of the food item. We suggest that there are four types of names that can help customers make healthier, better tasting associations with healthy foods including Sensory names (i.e., “Crispy Snow Peas”), geographic names (i.e.,“Tex-Mex Salad”), nostalgic names (i.e.,“Grandma’s cookies”) and brand names (i.e.,“Jack Daniels BBQ Ribs). If the actual experience is relatively similar to (or at least not worse than) one’s expectations, an attitude and sensory halo may occur.
The final factor the researchers explored is increasing the perception of value. Increasing perceptive value incorporates strategies that divert attention away from price, or minimize its role in their decision-making, and thus will hopefully influence diners to try new foods. Some suggestions include writing the price as $14 versus $14.00, and avoiding using the “$” sign or word “dollars.”
Reworking menus, menu boards, and signage can be a profitable and productive strategy to help persuade customers to choose healthy, high-margin foods. In the face of alternatives such as removing items from menus, and increased regulation of certain items, such as drink size, this alternative allows restaurants to be part of the solution to rising obesity rates, a win-win for both the restaurant industry and consumers.
Wansink, Brian & Katie Love (2014). Slim by design: Menu strategies for promoting high-margin, healthy foods. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 42, 137-143. doi:10.1016/j.ijhm.2014.06.006.