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Ace Up Your Sleeve: 5 Down and Dirty Menu Tricks

by Donald Burns | Aug 20, 2018


When it comes to getting the most from your menu how far would you push the edge? Would you make false claims? Would you say you use one brand yet really use a cheaper one?

Don’t be so judgmental so fast—sometimes when things get desperate, people get desperate as well. Let’s not get to that dark place so quickly. There are plenty of ways you can stimulate menu sales without going all Heisenberg like in Breaking Bad.


The human mind is a fascinating thing. We have the capability to stimulate emotions with our mere thoughts. We can also be fooled easily. Now, what I’m talking about is understanding and using the brain’s loopholes to help us out. It’s not sinister or evil if you play the game with menu integrity.

What does that mean?

It means don’t lie about ingredients. If you say you use San Marzano tomatoes in your signature sauce, use them. If you say you make your own herb-infused vodka for that Martini you rave about, show them the slow-drip system that produces your infusion. If you say you have an 8-ounce beef tenderloin, don’t tell your cooks to cut them to 7 ounces because the guests won’t know the difference.

There are no shortcuts when it comes to your core values. Once you sell out it’s very difficult to come back. The sad thing is how cheaply most sell out for. Don’t be that person!

So, what can you do? Here are five menu hacks that can keep your integrity intact and put more dollars in the bank.

1. Prime Them


Marketers take advantage of your subconscious all day long, attempting to highjack it. The image that keeps scrolling across your social media feed. That clever tune that you find yourself singing during the day. You are being primed to buy about 10,000 times a day.

When you hear marketers use the term “top of mind” what they’re really talking about is this concept of priming. Throw enough subtle (yet direct) messages out there and then ask for the sale.

That signature Brown Sugar & Coriander Beef Tenderloin you sell gets blasted (boosted) on all your social media feeds for a solid month with a short message: “You want me.” You place a banner or poster at your front door of the same tenderloin with the message: “What are you waiting for?”Now the server comes to the table and mentions the beef tenderloin “will make you feel like you went to Heaven in one bite.”

If you do that consistently you’ll see a dramatic increase in the sales mix for beef tenderloins. Repeat as needed to increase the sales of items you want sold.

2. Misdirection

Magicians use this one all the time. You look one direction while they palm a coin or pull a card out behind their back. Misdirection in restaurants and bars comes when a guest’s attention is pulled away from one item to focus on another.

Your server walks up to the table asking for the cocktail order. One guest says that she’s thinking of the Silver Coin Margarita. Her attention is misdirected when the server uses their index finger to point to the Ancho Chile House-Infused Paloma. The server mentions that the bartenders use a slow-drip filtration system very similar to what they use in gourmet coffee shops and then they point to it behind the bar.

Taking it further, your server adds that the bar staff also adds sliced ruby red grapefruits and herbs to give it a sweet heat flavor, unlike what they do at any other place. It’s light, it’s refreshing, and if the guest takes a sip and closes their eyes they’ll feel like they’re walking along the beach in Cabo. Paloma sold.

3. Play on Short-term Memory

The human brain is wired for survival. Knowing that the slow-moving animal behind that bush was a tiger that jumped out and ate your best friend is a good thing to store in your memories. This wiring is good to know when brain-hacking your menu.

How can we use the memory loop to increase menu sales? Let’s have a chat about recency effect.

This is also known as the serial position effect. This effect relates to a person’s capacity to accurately recall items on a list and how that ability is dependent on the position of said items on said list. Most people, when asked to recount items from a list, will start with the last items first. This is the recency effect in action! These items are still fresh in their short-term memory, which makes them easier to recall. This can be amplified for your menu by listing the items you truly want to sell at the bottom of a column or by making it the second thing you recommend to a guest.

I call this the Rule of Two. You give them the option of this or that. It’s very easy to implement and very effective.

Here’s an example of the classic exchange when ordering a drink at a table:

Server: Can I get you something from the bar?

Guest: I’ll have a Vodka Tonic.

Server: What kind of vodka would you like?

Guest: What kind of vodka do you have?

The server begins to recite the list of the 20 different vodkas you carry. Around number six the guest gets a distant look in their eyes. They’ve stopped listening.

Here’s an easier way to use the Rule of Two:

Server: Can I get you something from the bar?

Guest: I’ll have a Vodka Tonic.

Server: Grey Goose or Belvedere?

The cool trick is that most will order the second suggestion. Try it and do some field tests for yourself. Change up the order of which one you say second and see the difference in your sales.

4. Share a Secret

Everyone likes an inside secret. Telling guests an item is your favorite or that it’s the same item a local celebrity usually orders makes them feel like they’re on the inside with the cool kids. We all want to belong and sharing something that may not be common knowledge builds rapport between you and the guests. Anything you can do to deepen rapport increases sales and tips.

Your servers should make eye contact and lean in towards the table like they’re about to say something they don’t want others to hear. Sharing instead of reciting makes guest interaction special.

“Okay, the burger is amazing by itself…but If you really want a treat, let me get you a side of our red curry cheese sauce to dip it into. It will change your life.”

If you were to ask your team it’s a sure bet that each member has a few sales techniques up their sleeves they use to sell your menu items. Maybe they change out the vodka in one Martini for the brand they prefer. Allow them to share that with their guests. Allow them to customize the experience to the individual and you’ll have something very few restaurants and bars have today: a reason to return.

5. Avoid Saying No

Yes, it should be common sense to not say no. Funny how common sense is not so common. Always look for ways to say yes.

Menus are filled with negative tones and all the things you can’t have:

  • No substitutions.
  • No split checks.
  • No split plates.
  • No. No. No.

The less accommodating your menu is, the more appealing a restaurant down the street starts looking.

Can guests be a pain in the ass? Of course—they’re human. Humans tend to be that way when they have different expectations than your own. Making it your mission to tell people what they can and can’t do via your menu is a one-way trip to a town called Frustrationville.

The problem with placing rules and restrictions on your menu is twofold:

  1. Most people don’t read the fine print on your menu. Sorry to break this news to you but that mini novel you wrote on the back (or bottom) of your menu is rarely a focus point of interest for most guests.
  2. Words written on menus often lack tone or nuance. It happens with the written word all the time. It’s possible that the tone I intended for this article and the one you’re reading it in are different. I can write the same paragraph, have it read by two different people, and get two totally different reactions to my words. Tone is powerful—it’s an important aspect of how we communicate. When it’s removed or misinterpreted, people put their own tone behind the words and that’s when things can go badly.

Save the drama and headaches by instead training your team to be menu ambassadors. They should be thoroughly trained (and tested) to know all the details behind each menu item.

  • Ingredients.
  • Preparation.
  • Suggestions for paired beverages.
  • Suggestions to enhance the meal (upselling).
  • How to handle guest complaints professionally.

Not investing in training your team on your menu is a recipe for failure. Too many put in a lot of time and work developing menu items and recipes that are meant to wow their guests only to drop the ball on the training end. Your menu is only as good as the training behind it.

Remember, your menu is your number one marketing and profitability tool. Treat it with respect and give your team the resources they need to succeed. You don’t need tricks up your sleeve if you set yourself up for success from the start. There are no shortcuts. You have to do the work—period.

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