The evils of the strawberry garnish

Posted by | April 27, 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments

… and the psychology of the restaurant menu.

A number of years ago Sainsbury, the supermarket chain, were carrying out research into customer behaviour when they stumbled across an interest nugget. One woman said she only ever bought organic, not so unusual, until they drilled down to find out why. She had no interest in the politics or health of the food – she just used the narrow focus of the organic offering to help her get rid of the clutter and shop quicker. Less sometimes really is more.

Yet many restaurateurs think that more is more and create unwieldy menus with a dizzying number of choices. To the ordinary punter these menus are confusing yet the fairly ordinary list of items for sale on other menus seem easier to read. People assume this is all a matter of chance. They couldn’t be more wrong. There are entire industries built around the psychology of the menu and how they function. Here’s my list of 5 recurring issues I’ve spotted on menus over the last 14 years.

1 Too much choice
I have always been a great believer in the brevity of a menu and now my view is backed up by research. The US chain Joe’s Crab Shack realised that their menu had grown so big that people were finding it difficult to find the diminishing number of crab dishes their names suggested they were serving. They reduced the menu and focused on more crab dishes and saw sales grow over 18 consecutive quarters. In 2012 the International House of Pancakes carried out similar research and although they are not exactly artisan the lessons are universal. Too much choice confuses people and reduces the sales of dishes hidden amongst the clutter. Their solution wasn’t rocket science: they reduced the menu and grouped dishes by food type. Essentially this is how many people decide to go out for dinner with remarks like: ‘let’s go for a burger’ or ‘lets go for a fry-up’ so menus need to reflect this too by placing meats, fish or indeed, omelettes together. Restaurateurs need to view the menu as the greatest communication tool between the kitchen and the customer, not just a list of items for sale.

2 Vegetarian options are not always for vegetarians
The life of the vegetarian, who likes dining out, can be a pretty miserable one, and if you don’t eat goats’ cheese you’re in trouble. In fact there are many menus with goats’ cheese starters followed by a goats’ cheese main course. The reality is that a well-crafted dish does not have to be sold as vegetarian – we should be getting as much inspiration from the non-meat larder as the butcher. A quick look at the first course on offer in Chaper One ( may surprise people. This Dublin based Michelin starred restaurant only does vegetarian dishes for their first course. Super Miss Sue (, another Dublin restaurant, have a selection of interesting side orders which can be easily upgraded to vegetarian main courses. They tend not to advertise it as carnivores are a funny lot and think the vegetarian option is not for them. So, chefs, get creative and include several vegetarian options, you don’t have to sell them as that.

3 Collars and cuffs, web and reality
Before the arrival of the internet if you were planning a night out your first glimpse of the menu was when you set foot in the restaurant but all that has changed. There’s now a significant number of people who check the menu on line to drool over what they’ll order on the night. But then on the big night they discover that the menu on line has nothing to do with the menu on the night. Chefs who say it is too complicated to update a website every day as they change their menu every day (which is to be lauded) are forgetting that many of their customers update their Facebook profiles every, well, hour.

4 Healthy options – truth and reality
People don’t always say what they mean. Hardly a major insight, I concede, but when you’re carrying out market research this can be fatal. In my previous role as editor of FOOD&WINE Magazine I made the rather grim discovery of ‘aspirational readers’. These are people who say they read the magazine, as they feel they should, but don’t actually buy it or read it. The same applies with people’s demands for healthy options on the menu: 70% say they want healthier options but only 20% actually order the healthy dishes. That’s quite a startling statistic if you’ve changed your entire menu to suit the 50% who just imagine they order healthy food. Nonetheless, there are ways of guiding people to particular dishes through the architecture of the menu layout. By placing very high value items next to medium value items people are more inclined to pick the medium value item. The blow-out €70 shellfish extravaganza or the shared Chateaubriand for €50 is rarely ordered or indeed what the restaurant wants you to order.

5 The mysterious strawberry garnish
A menu description should tell you enough to tantalise but still leave a surprise or two when the dish arrives, but this shouldn’t include the gilding of lilies. The strawberry garnish on the likes of a cheese plate is really a symbol of a kitchen failing to properly cost their menu. More often than not it is part of a culture of unnecessary garnishes where flourishes, drizzles and foams are added to informal food to give them a smarter look. They add nothing to the dishes but every strawberry is adding some 40c to the costs. If a restaurant serves 70 dishes in a day with an unnecessary garnish that’s €28 per day, or in a year over €1,000. This is money that could be better spent on other things.

These issues and others will be explored in the industry MasterClass ‘Would you like profit with that?’ on Tuesday 13 May, in the Marker Hotel, Dublin. Follow the link for the list of speakers and booking details.

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