Times are tough for restaurants. The average check size has increased just 1.7% per year over the past five years, according to NPD Group, a market research firm. That’s because diners are watching what they spend at restaurants by forgoing pricey extras, such as drinks and appetizers, says Bonnie Riggs, NPD Group’s restaurant industry analyst.
In response to penny-pinching patrons, restaurant owners are compelled to find creative ways to get customers to fork over more cash. We’ve identified nine common tactics -- ranging from the subtle to the overt -- with the help of restaurant industry veterans, consultants and researchers. All are designed to increase the cost of your next meal out.
1. The Upsell
Servers will attempt to upsell you during every step of the meal-ordering process to increase your bill, says David Bakke, a former restaurant manager who is now an editor for the blog Money Crashers. When you order a burger, for example, you’ll likely be asked whether you want cheese with it. Or if you order a steak, you might be asked if you would like a side of creamed spinach. Price-conscious diners should ask immediately if proposed extras will add to the bill.
2. The Downsell
Beware a little reverse psychology from your server. Some restaurants will recommend lower-priced items on their menus -- often with the good intention of providing better value and encouraging repeat visits. Still, the approach can lead customers to spend more in total for several lower-priced items than they might have spent on a single, higher-priced meal, says Tom Frank, one of the creators of the P.F. Chang’s restaurant concept, who advocates the value-selling approach.
3. Wordy Menu Descriptions
Think $12.95 is too much to pay for a salad? What if it’s a Kentucky Bibb lettuce salad with heirloom tomatoes, Maytag blue cheese, crispy bacon and homemade bourbon-infused vinaigrette? Carefully crafted descriptions can soften the price in a customer’s head, says Gregg Rapp, a menu engineer with 31 years of experience helping restaurants increase profits. In particular, descriptions that use geographic labels (Austin Tex Mex), nostalgic terms (Uncle Bob’s barbecue), sensory triggers (sizzling, savory, creamy) and brand names (San Marzano tomatoes) are most effective at creating a sense of value for customers.
4. Menus Without Dollar Signs
Another way restaurants “soften” prices is to leave dollar signs off their menus, Rapp says. A study by researchers at Cornell University’s Center for Hospitality Research found that diners given a numeral-only menu spent 8.15% more, on average, than customers given a menu with dollar signs.
Rapp also advises restaurants to omit the dots that connect prices to items on menus. The dots make it easier for patrons to scan menus for the cheapest price, then to follow the line of dots over to the item to order it.
5. Menu Item Placement
Savvy restaurant owners will place items that they want to sell most in the top spot under each course offering, Rapp says. Sometimes these items might be the highest-priced, such as lobster or foie gras. Other times, the items in the top spots will carry the highest profit margin (think cheap ingredients such as pasta that can be gussied up). Restaurants also will place boxes around higher-priced items to draw diners’ attention to them.
6. The Daily Special
The daily special is pushed heavily by servers, Bakke says, because it often costs more than regular menu items and can carry a higher markup. But patrons might not realize this because the price of the special isn’t always printed in the menu. Servers usually just rattle off a list of specials without quoting dollar figures. It’s then up to patrons to ask for the price of each special -- or potentially face a costly surprise when the bill arrives.
7. The Background Music
The music a restaurant plays can affect the amount of money you spend. A study by Scottish researchers found that customers spent 23% more on food and drink when slow music was playing than when the soundtrack featured fast music. And a separate study by British researchers found that restaurant tabs were 10.4% higher when classical music was played than when pop music was piped in.
8. Souvenir Items
- Many restaurants -- chain restaurants, in particular -- make a lot of money selling souvenir items in addition to food. One source with 23 years of experience as a waiter, bartender and supervisor at a popular restaurant chain says that customers often don’t want to feel like they’re being pushed to buy a souvenir, though. So when the source (he asked not to be named to protect his employment prospects in the industry ) asks patrons whether they want a small or large cocktail, he tells them that they get to keep the glass if they order a large. Usually, he says, they go for the large.
Because many restaurants don’t charge extra every time the server adds more coffee to your cup or iced tea to your glass, it’s easy to assume that refills will be free everywhere you go. However, some restaurants charge for refills but only divulge that fact in the menu’s fine print -- or not at all. A table of four that orders refills during the meal and again during coffee service might unwittingly add $20 to a tab. If it’s not clear whether refills are free, ask.
Award-winning journalist, speaker, family finance expert, and author of Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk.
Cameron Huddleston wrote the daily "Kip Tips" column for Kiplinger.com. She joined Kiplinger in 2001 after graduating from American University with an MA in economic journalism.
Stock Market Today: Stocks End Mixed After Disappointing Economic Data
The main indexes made muted moves Tuesday as investors took data that showed a big drop in durable goods and consumer confidence.
By Karee Venema Published
Leap Day: Financial Pros and Cons
2024 is a leap year and this Thursday February 29 a leap day, giving you one more day to achieve your goals — and pay interest on your loans.
By Donna LeValley Published
7 Things Medicare Doesn’t Cover
Healthy Living on a Budget Medicare Part A and Part B leave some pretty significant gaps in your health-care coverage. But Medicare Advantage has problems, too.
By Donna LeValley Last updated
The 10 Cheapest Countries to Visit
Despite inflation, there are some areas where the strong dollar will definitely work in your favor.
By Quincy Williamson Last updated
Five Reasons You Shouldn't Shop on Amazon Prime Day
Smart Buying Think twice before getting lured into buying a bunch of stuff you don't need just because it's on sale.
By Andrea Browne Taylor Published
15 Ways to Prepare Your Home for Winter
home Now that fall is officially here, it's time to prepare your home for cold weather.
By Donna LeValley Published
Six Steps to Get Lower Car Insurance Rates
insurance Shopping around for auto insurance may not be your idea of fun, but comparing prices for a new policy every few years — or even more often — can pay off big.
By Donna LeValley Published
10 Things You Need to Know About Retiring to Florida
Making Your Money Last If Florida is part of your retirement plan, we offer up a few tips to help you find your way.
By Bob Niedt Last updated
6 Ways to Boost Your Credit Score — Fast
Tips for boosting your credit score quickly, starting with paying down your credit card debt.
By Lisa Gerstner Last updated
Hurricane Insurance Claims: 10 Things You Should Know
Becoming a Homeowner Hurricane damage? Know what’s covered, what isn’t, and how to make the most of your policy if you need to file a claim.
By Kimberly Lankford Last updated