5 Secret Ways Restaurants Make You Spend More


Ryan Ong



Yes, I’ve been in food & beverage. And I know what you’re thinking: That I’m going to bash their tactics and tear them down. Well no. Because F&B is insanely hard, skilled labour. It’s worthy of respect. And some of these tactics are fine, if a little manipulative. If you’re well on budget, they won’t really hurt you.  But if you need to control your costs (e.g. client lunches for your start-up), watch for these:


Important Disclaimer

I’m not suggesting every restaurant in Singapore wants to rip you off.

For the most part, the following ploys are just sales tactics. They are no more “wrong” than a good store-front display, or good advertising.

F&B is a tough business. It has high labour costs and low profit margins. Anyone who’s experienced a 15 hour kitchen shift will testify to that. I’m not denouncing F&B; I’m just putting out alerts for people who need to dine on a budget.


1. Different Portion Sizes


Massive platter
We can’t a large. It would endanger the species.


With main courses, there’s usually no way to hide different sizes. But appetizers…there’s a different story.

I get suspicious when I see different size options for appetizers. Take salads, for instance. It’s easy to arrange leaves to make a salad look huge; it’s one of the first things I learned in a kitchen. The difference between many a  $12.90 and $8.90 salads was me chucking four extra leaves on a plate.

And hey, unless you’ve ordered the small portion before, you can’t tell can you?

Same goes for cheese sticks, chicken wings (major profit generator), and calamari. There’s a reason so many restaurants love these: They can charge between $2 to $4 more for a few extra cents of food; like five extra squid rings.

So before picking the size, ask for a visual reference. Or just default to the small. Odds are, the quantity is close to the same.

Speaking of size…


2. Three Funny Names


Different coffee sizes
“…and the smallest size, which we call The Loser. So, what’ll you have?”


When you’re buying drinks from an upmarket cafe, you might be presented with three cup sizes. All with funny names, like tall, grand, and never-sleep-again. Why not just small, regular, and large?

The reason is a study done in ’83, by Huber and Puto. When given three choices without familiar names, most people will pick the middle one. I say it’s doubly true when there’s a queue behind them, and they need to make a snap decision. It’s a way for cafes to ensure they sell a profitable amount.

Good news: Just being aware of this cancels the effect. So now you know, and you’ll never end up ordering a too-big cup on impulse.


3. Boxes and Underlines


Staring closely at a menu
“I can see just fine. But the non-special items are written in 2 point font.”


I notice some restaurants use symbols (like a little chef’s hat) or words like “recommended” to encourage certain orders. Bunch of amateurs.

The best way to influence someone’s order is, firstly, to screw up the menu’s alignment. You know what I mean, the kind of menu where there are’t two straight columns. Instead, there’s pictures and text scattered everywhere, like a bad web page from 1997.

From the mess, the menu’s layout artist underlines or draw a box around high profit items. If they  want to be subtle, they arrange the layout so it forms a little box around the star items. It makes the tiems pop out from the confusion, see?

When you scan the menu, your brain behaves like a distracted puppy, and insists you order the things that stick out.  As a further benefit, the scrambled page prevents you running your eyes down a straight price column. You’ll be discouraged from zeroing in on the cheapest product.


4. The Price Anchor


New Zealand Lobster tank
Bit awkward but…those are actually pets. We just put them on the menu to make everything else look cheap.


When designing menus, restaurants try to set the pace with a price anchor.

This is usually a highlighted item in the upper-right hand corner. It doesn’t matter what the item is; it’s just there to make other prices seem reasonable. So if the anchor item is an $88 wagyu steak, you won’t be shocked when the other steaks are priced around $35 to $40 (market average is the $25 range).

On the upside, this lets you “filter” the restaurant from your budget range. On the downside, it causes you to make overpriced purchases you usually wouldn’t. For example, you’re more inclined to pay $7.90 for mushroom soup if the anchor item is over $30.

To circumvent this, make mental comparisons to other restaurants. Or just pick a budget range, and use the anchor item to filter out your options.


5. Price Contrast


Menu with statue of a chef
Before the statue, it was the waiters who got punched in the face.


Is the menu alphabetically organized? Is it arranged from expensive to cheap? No. The only form of organization tends to be categories, like “entree” or “dessert”.

That gives the menu engineer free reign to play with contrast. If I try to charge you $3.90 for a baked potato, you might have a hissy fit about it. But if I list a $3.90 potato under an $89.90 ribs platter, that’s different isn’t it? Suddenly, the potato doesn’t seem all that expensive.

This is somewhat similar to the price anchor; the difference is, the contrasting items are placed next to each other. Apart from price, there’s often no real reason they’re next to each other. This trick is also used in retail sales.

(If you want to know more about these tactics, follow us on Facebook. We call ’em as we spot ’em.)

A good way around this is to not linger:. Zero in on the mains, pick the one you can afford, and order straight away. The longer you spend on the menu, the more susceptible you become to ordering extras. Especially when those extras seem more and more affordable.

Image Credits:
nicfill, avlxyz, Acarlos1000, srslyguys, variationblogr, orsorama, Edsel L

Know any menu engineering tricks? Comment and let us know!

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Ryan Ong

I was a freelance writer for over a decade, and covered topics from music to super-contagious foot diseases. I took this job because I believe financial news should be accessible and fun to read. Also, because the assignments don't involve shouting teenagers and debilitating plagues.