Menu Reading Study Shows Restaurants Have Misunderstood Customers For Years

Over the past decade or so, a whole cornucopia of new menu sections has bloomed across the once-humble sheet of paper: cheese plates, stuzzichini, "bites to share," yakitori, snacks, salumi, "potted foods." Part of the rationale for this new variety is culinary, with chefs looking for new avenues for creative expression; part of it is cravenly profit-seeking, with restaurant owners hoping that new courses will encourage people to order more. But another smidgen of backing for extra sections comes from a theory of menu design that invokes a kind of psychology of menu reading.

People in the restaurant industry have long believed that customers look at different parts of an arcane order: the middle-right, first, say, and then the upper right, and then the upper-left... you get the picture. The holy grail of this kind of menu design was referred to as the "menu sweet spot" -- the one part of a menu that people were most likely to buy menu items. If the "sweet spot" could be definitively located, then that would be the place to put the highest-profit items, the one you'd hope customers would order most often.

But a new study of actual consumer behavior indicates that the "sweet spot" is just a myth.

Researchers at SF State trained retinal scanners on study participants as they read menus and then ordered things as if at dinner. They found that people basically read menus the same way they read books -- starting on the left page, going down to the bottom, then moving to the right and going down to the bottom. They don't linger particularly long on any one spot.

So, restaurateurs, if you want people to order something in particular, don't bother redesigning your menu to accomodate it -- just make sure it's really good. And alluringly named!