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Menu Pricing’s Theory Of Relativity

Menu Pricing's Theory of RelativityIn a previous oldie-but-goodie Back Burner post I talked about menu engineering – how to put together a menu that effectively markets your dishes and makes customers want to spend more and buy high margin menu items.  One thing that post did not touch upon, however, was how to price and organize those prices on the menu.

Research has shown that organizing prices the right way can affect what customers order and what they consider to be a good deal, and often will encourage them to spend more in your restaurant.  How?  Call it the Theory of Relativity.  When someone looks at a menu, they will inevitably comparing prices.  If you’ve read the post I mention above, you have already helped the customer make an emotional rather than monetary attachment to the item they want to order by de-emphasizing the price altogether – removing the dollar signs, placing it below the description rather than by itself out to the side, etc.

Even so, people are going to compare prices.  That’s where the Theory comes in.  More often than not, customers will choose a middle-of-the-road option.  The trick is to define “middle-of-the-road” for your customer.  That’s why a smart restaurateur will create one entrée that is ridiculously expensive – absolutely and shamelessly high end.  You may never sell a single one, but it doesn’t matter.  That unaffordable entrée will give your customers a compass by which they will judge the rest of the menu.

The research shows that customers will pay more on average if they have a higher priced item to compare against.  Their perception of value changes the higher the number they are comparing against is.  This phenomenon was illustrated very well in a recent study that took a completely irrelevant number – the last two digits of the respondent’s social security number – and then asked participants to bid on different items for sale.  Those with social security digits in the upper 20% bid 200% – 300% more for items than those with digits in the bottom 20%.  Why? Because people innately base their perceived value for a product on the next relative number, whether it’s the last two digits of your social security number or a $25 prime rib.

That means you can price your bread-and-butter, high margin, best selling dishes a little higher and still convince your customer they’re getting a great value.  And you never know, someone just might order that high end entrée once in awhile, which won’t be bad for your bottom line at all.

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Does The Rise of the Spanish Mean the Death Of French Cuisine?

Classic Spanish FareFrench food has always been the gold standard in fine dining.  Over the years the fusion of French cuisine with flavors from around the world has bred a culture of ingenuity and dynamism that helped perpetuate French style cooking as the center for culinary excellence.  But recently some trends have started pointing in other directions, and author Michael Steinberger even argues in a new book that the decline of French cuisine will lead to the rise of Spanish fare.

Stepping into the opening void is internationally renowned Spanish chef David Munoz, whose Asian/Spanish fusion restaurant in Madrid, Spain has earned wide accolades and remains booked months in advance.  Munoz is a devout follower of Asian style cooking, and has turned in time at prestigious Asian fusion restaurants like Nobu of London.  The result of his obsession with Asian cuisine is exciting and fresh Spanish style dishes heavily seasoned with the rich flavors of the Orient.

Spanish chefs and new Spanish-themed restaurants have been gaining notoriety in major U.S. cities like New York and Los Angeles.  For David Munoz, Spanish cuisine is less about Spain and more about combining flavors from all over the world to create exciting new cuisine.  And maybe the new found trendiness of Spanish food has less to do with the decline of the French and more to do with a new willingness by diners and chefs alike to try new combinations and types of flavors and foods.  In an increasingly globalized world, it seems the domination of the French is giving way to the fusion of the rest of the world’s cooking styles.

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Menu Trends: Restaurants Are Introducing A South American Super Crop

Quinoa The South American Super CropThis is a story about how an Incan super crop is starting to take over health food stores and trendy restaurants in the U.S.  The rest of the world is already on board with this mysterious super plant; we’re just now catching up.

What’s so great about this plant?  Well, it doesn’t rot, doesn’t need refrigeration, is a complete protein but is dairy and gluten free, and is rich in important vitamins like iron, magnesium, and riboflavin.  It’s easy to cook and also very affordable.

So what’s the name of this super crop?  Quinoa is a grain from South America that was once cultivated by the Incas.  It’s been around in the U.S. for 20 years, but has only very recently started to gain momentum among professional chefs.

That momentum, however, has started to reach terminal velocity.  Quinoa is very versatile from a cook’s perspective, and its ability to absorb the spices with which it’s cooked means it can be prepared in an infinite number of ways.

Give a chef an opportunity to get creative with a new ingredient that’s hearty and healthy, and you won’t need a second explanation.  That’s precisely why quinoa has started popping up in restaurants across the country.

Quinoa is available in white, red, and black varieties and also comes in flour and cereal form.  I guess it’s not called a super crop for nothing.

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Move Over Beer: Craft Cocktails The Latest Trend

cold Drinks With FruitsFor generations Americans have had a fairly straightforward approach to cocktails – gin and tonic, highball, rum and coke – without ever giving a second thought to the possibilities a true bartender genius is capable of when given the space.  Back in the 1800s and early 1900s, specialty cocktails were commonplace, featuring interesting flavor pairings and even more interesting names.

Those days are starting to come back as the craft cocktail movement gains momentum in big cities like New York and Los Angeles.  American tastes started evolving 25 years ago when wine was rediscovered in a big way.  That was followed by an extensive love affair with craft beer and the rise of the microbrewery across the U.S.  Now it’s finally the cocktail’s turn, and bars and restaurants that have tapped into the trend have flourished.

So what makes a craft cocktail a craft cocktail?

Some key attributes include:

  • Fresh ingredients, preferably locally sourced
  • In-house additives with unique flavors like bitters and syrups
  • Interesting flavor pairings, like sweet and nutty or lemons and bacon
  • Seasonal offerings like cider flavors in winter and mint in summer

Introducing a menu of your own craft cocktails is not only an adventure, it livens up your happy hour and grabs customer attention.  Some tips on how to craft your own cocktails:

Think outside the box
when you’re developing your drinks.  Interesting twists is the name of this game.  Intrigue your customers with exotic flavors and weird pairings.

Make it fresh as much as possible.
Flavorings made in-house and fresh ingredients help give your cocktails a flavor that can’t be captured in anything you get from the liquor distributor and helps your craft cocktail menu stand out.

Train bar staff well.
A proper craft cocktail menu will take some significant creative effort to create and perfect.  Nothing will lead those efforts to waste faster than a busy bar staff that doesn’t have the time or the training to get these cocktails just right.  This isn’t time for soda gun slinging.  Each cocktail should be made carefully and to specific standards to ensure a level of quality that allows you to charge that high price you should be asking.

Get some witty names.
The tradition of branding cocktails with clever double entendres, famous songs or people, and off-color puns is as old as the cocktail itself.  Engage your customer with some great names for your creations on the menu.

A quality menu of craft cocktails can be a great way to create some buzz around your restaurant or bar and get the word-of-mouth going.  It can also be a great outlet for your natural culinary inventiveness.  Done right, craft cocktails can be an outlet for your creative juices as well as a booster for your bottom line.

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Menu Trends: Ruby Red Hibiscus Flavors

Hibiscus Is A Hot New Menu TrendHibiscus, the beautiful tropical flower, is now making its way into cocktails, teas, and desserts in some of the trendiest urban restaurants.  The taste is described as both fruity and floral, with a tartness not unlike lemon.  From the perspective of presentation, hibiscus flavored drinks and desserts turn an appealing ruby red color.  Some supermarkets are even carrying hibiscus flavored drinks.

Our neighbors to the south in the Caribbean and Latin America have been enjoying hibiscus flavored drinks for years.  It’s only recently that the flower has become popular in the U.S. as a flavoring.  Watch for hibiscus flavors to start showing up in more and more restaurants soon.  If you’re looking for new menu items or cocktails in your restaurant, Caribbean style foods and drinks with hibiscus could add a tasty, exotic touch to your offerings.

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Healthy Menu? Don’t Tell Your Customers

Ask anyone sitting on their couch around dinnertime if they want a healthy pizza, and you’ll probably get a lukewarm response.  Not that people don’t want to eat healthier.  Study after study has shown that consumers, when asked when they aren’t actively ordering food at a restaurant, want healthy menu options.  But as I have discussed in the past, that doesn’t always translate well to the moment of truth when a patron actually makes their decision.

A New Orleans pizza concept learned this lesson the hard way.  Calling themselves World’s Healthiest Pizza, they formed a menu based on the premise of making healthy taste great.  Response was lackluster from the start.  That’s because nobody wants to eat healthy pizza.  They want a pizza that tastes awesome, calories and fat be damned.  To most people, the word “healthy” doesn’t mean “enjoyable” or “tasty.”

For this reason, many restaurant chains don’t even tell customers new menu items are healthy, and they don’t make a big deal when they change the ingredients of existing meals that make them healthier.  The reasons are very simple: customers order things they think will taste good.  Customers also don’t associate healthy with good taste.

There is a small contingent who care passionately about eating healthy, reduced calorie and fat foods.  They are the ones who will read the nutrition facts on your menu and be satisfied when they discover just how healthy your menu is.  For the vast majority of patrons, however, your primary objective is to convince them that the items on your menu taste absolutely amazing.  After they fall in love with your menu, hopefully they’ll realize their favorite meals are also healthy eating, and you’ll have a customer for life.

As for World’s Healthiest Pizza, they changed their name to Naked Pizza earlier this year.  The concept’s owners remain dedicated to making great tasting pizza that’s also good for you.  They just don’t tell you about it until you’ve discovered just how great healthy tastes.

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How Sub Culture Is Pirating Fine Dining In San Francisco

Sub Culture DiningWhat if you were told about a restaurant that had no fixed location or menu and kept this information a secret until just a few hours before you leave for dinner?  The Dissident Chef of San Francisco does just this to his patrons on a regular basis.  They purchase tickets without any idea what or where they will be eating.

The details are emailed to ticket holders on the day of the event.  The location is usually a unique, wide open facility that wouldn’t strike you immediately as a place to go out to eat.  Abandoned warehouses and wine cellars have been transformed by The Dissident Chef and his entourage into a temporary “environment” for his food events.

For all the secrecy, the actual events are supposed to be wondrous affairs, with unique 6-10 course meals that are usually themed around certain ingredients or types of food.  The food is, of course, sourced locally and served as fresh as possible.  The Dissident Chef, who grew tired of running a top 10 L.A. restaurant before emigrating to San Francisco, focuses on surprising and delighting his guests.

Social media has been crucial to the success of Sub-Culture Dining.  Facebook and Twitter allow Sub Culture’s followers to track events and communicate quickly about developments.  These new mediums have also helped this utterly unique approach to fine dining to rocket to success in only a few years.  The result is limited membership to the Sub Culture club, with The Dissident Chef as ringleader and ultimate decision maker on who gets to attend these exclusive dinners.

Besides social media, the very effective technique of perceived supply shortage (i.e. limited memberships) has helped Sub Culture Dining become the worst kept secret in San Francisco.  For The Dissident, the experience has allowed him to accrue the investors and connections he needed to start his own fine dining establishment in San Francisco.

For the majority of the food service industry, such a unique approach to serving premier fine cuisine may seem a little on the extreme side.  Yet the excitement Sub Culture Dining has produced in San Francisco is something that shouldn’t be overlooked.  Whatever you think about the oddities of The Dissident Chef’s approach, you can’t argue with the fundamentals of the restaurant business he has absolutely nailed: fresh, unique cuisine, quality service, and a great atmosphere.

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Want Your Fast Food Fancy?

A website called Fancy Fast Food has taken all the mass produced food that makes Americans fat, but that we love to eat, and turned it into top quality fine cuisine, complete with garnish.  The results are actually very stunning, even after viewing the before picture.  Some examples include:


Nathan’s Not-So-Famous Faux Foie Gras – 6 Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs, a lemonade, a mustard packet, and a rosemary garnish.  The result looks like anything you might find at a 5 star restaurant, and without the ethically questionable duck livers to boot.


Boston Kreme Brulee – Made from the filling of 8 Dunkin’ Donuts Boston Kreme Donuts,  this “kreme brulee” looks just as tasty as anything you might find in a restaurant, and probably cheaper too.


The Colonel’s Chicken Corn Chowder – Put together a complete meal from KFC and get some top quality corn chowder.  The picture sure makes it look good…

Submit your own fancy fast food recipes, complete with before and after pictures.  The only rule is that you can’t add anything to your recipe besides what you buy in a fast food joint (with the exception of a garnish).  These guys have plenty more amazing recipes, and every one makes their motto ring a little more true: Yeah It’s Still Bad For You – But See How Good It Can Look!

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Healthy Menus: Are Customers Saying One Thing Then Doing Another?

Healthy Menu TrendsHealthy this.  Healthy that.  We want nutrition information.  We want healthy menu choices.

The drumbeat coming from consumers and consumer groups over the last five years has steadily increased, demanding healthier options from restaurants in all segments of the food service industry.  Heavyweights like McDonald’s have bent under the pressure, and everyone across the industry has heard the call for healthy menus and responded.  This should be a classic example of the customer asking and then receiving exactly what they wanted.  Responding to the needs of customers is what success in food service is all about, right?

But what if customers are saying one thing and doing another?  A recent study conducted by Mintel Menu Insights reveals that 8 in 10 adults in the United States say eating healthy is important to them.  But when it comes to sitting down to a meal at a restaurant, only 20% of diners are thinking about healthy options.  Taste (at 77%) and hunger satisfaction (at 44%) are much more important to the customer’s dining experience.  Even worse, 54% said that healthy menu items are more likely to be more expensive.

More than three quarters of the American public want to see nutrition information on menus, and legislation has already been passed in several states mandating that information be presented by restaurants.  A national bill is in the works and will probably pass within the year.  Eventually, consumers are going to demand that entrees be healthy AND have superior taste and hunger satisfaction.  The more readily available menu nutrition information is, the faster that time will come.

So customers may be saying one thing and doing another currently.  That will probably change as menus help inform customer decisions with calorie and nutritional information.  As that time approaches, restaurants will do well to figure out how to take the taste and satisfaction that comes from traditional preparation  methods like frying and infuse it with lighter, healthier fare.

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Italian Grandmas Run Staten Island Restaurant

Italian Grandmas Run The Enoteca Maria RestaurantThe Enoteca Maria restaurant of Staten Island, NY serves truly authentic Italian style home cooking every evening.  They can make such a bold claim, because anyone who ventures into the kitchen in this small 35-seat restaurant will find an actual Italian Grandma bent over the stove conjuring up classic recipes that have been passed down for generations.

Enoteca Maria employs eight local women, all of whom draw on their Italian heritage and culture to bring traditional dishes to the restaurant’s patrons.  Each chef designs and creates her own unique menu based on the food she has been cooking at home for years.

This genuine Italian cuisine gets rave reviews every time it comes out of Enoteca’s kitchen.  And the Grandmas love their newfound celebrity.  They regularly receive standing ovations from happy customers, which is much more appreciation than they get at home.

Enoteca’s nightly menu rotation (depending on which Grandma is in for the night), superb wine list, and cozy atmosphere has made for a unique dining experience that can only be created by a grandmother’s kitchen.

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