CRUNCHEd: a blog about people and numbers

14 Marketing Secrets Restaurants Don’t Want You to Know

Most people aren’t likely to put a lot of thought into their dining experience. It’s as simple as visiting, eating, paying your check, and heading out. But under close scrutiny, there’s so much more at work, from specials to nutritional tricks, and menu engineering. Check out our collection of marketing secrets restaurants use, and you’ll be wiser next time you go out to eat.

  1. Specials aren’t so special: Less than fresh items may be hiding under sauces and soups on the specials menu. Although there are legitimate items like seasonal ingredients and new dishes on the specials menu, look at it with a wary eye.
  2. Homemade doesn’t mean house made: Desserts on the menu might be listed as homemade, but that doesn’t mean it’s made in-house. Instead, it could be homemade from a bakery miles away.
  3. The special drink we’re out of might just be too time consuming: Restaurants often market special frozen drinks, but your waiter may tell you that they’re out of it because it’s hard to make. Of course, they may suddenly find the ingredients if you decide you’d rather have water, not wanting to lose your drink on the bill.
  4. Low fat doesn’t mean healthy: Restaurants often advertise low fat items, but those same items can be loaded with calories and carbohydrates. For example, Applebee’s low-fat chicken quesadillas have 90 grams of carbohydrates and 742 calories.
  5. Restaurants practice menu engineering: The way restaurants list items and prices can influence how you order. For example, listing prices in the same font as descriptions and not adding a dollar sign can minimize the cost. High-markup items will take center stage at the upper right of the menu, where the eyes are naturally drawn.
  6. Your fish may not be what you think it is: Distributors and restaurants may mislabel fish, selling you a snapper but actually giving you tilapia. Additionally, endangered fish may be listed under a different name, like when restaurants sell "toro," actually giving you Chilean sea bass.
  7. Calorie counts aren’t always spot on: Many restaurants now list calories and other nutrition facts on their menus, which is nice for diners who are watching what they eat. But don’t rely carefully on this information, because it can be thrown off by differences in preparation and generous portions.
  8. The second-cheapest wine has the biggest markup: Restaurants know you don’t want to look like a cheapo and order the cheapest wine on the menu. So they mark up the second cheapest bottle of wine, knowing you’ll go for that one.
  9. They’ll still leave a space for a tip even if it’s included: Most restaurants automatically charge a tip for large parties, but there’s typically still a spot for you to leave one on the bill. Be careful not to double tip, unless you’d like to leave an additional tip for great service.
  10. All natural is anything: There is no FDA definition of "all natural." That means you can find artificial flavoring in "all natural chicken" and high fructose corn syrup in "all natural smoothies."
  11. The table next to you may be getting a better deal: Groupon, Restaurant.com, and other deal sites make dining out cheaper if you’re in the know. But restaurants will gladly charge loyal customers full price.
  12. Fruit can just be flavoring: Even if a fruit’s name is in the title of a dish or drink, there may not actually be fruit in it. Sometimes, it’s just a flavored corn syrup.
  13. They won’t tell you if they don’t like a dish: Servers can’t tell you if they don’t like a dish. If you ask about a dish and get a generic response, it’s probably not a favorite.
  14. Stay well within posted hours: Restaurants will stay open up to and sometimes past their advertised hours, but actually dining at that time isn’t always a great idea. Not only are servers not appreciative of last minute diners, the kitchen has often begun cleanup for the night, which means your food is being prepared with food that was prepped long ago, in ovens and fryers with the buildup of a whole night. Additionally, when there’s cooking and cleaning happening at the same time in the kitchen, your food may end up getting sprayed with kitchen cleaner.

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