Case Study: Simple Nudges in a Restaurant Menu Design That Increased Sales 4-Fold

Who knew that applying a few easy behavioral changes to a restaurant menu design could increase sales of the least popular item by fourfold? 

In this article, you’ll discover:

  • Simple tips to improve your product description and menu structure;
  • What to take into account when measuring the impact; and
  • Why you shouldn’t run a messy experiment and what you can do instead.
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In October 2019, the Human Behavior Lab at Texas A&M University decided to do something for the Lone Star State: help its barbecue industry. Why was this necessary you might ask? Well, the main challenge was that the cost of the industry's best-selling signature item, brisket, increased, making it even more difficult (for an industry that’s already notorious for having low margins) to make a profit off it. 

So the barbecue restaurant owners needed to spot another winning horse people would order more of. So they chose... you guessed it, turkey! Yeah, that’s right. With brisket getting more and more expensive, this was a logical step forward; the margins were much higher on turkey and sausage. Yet the problem was that few customers were buying them.

The main challenge was that the cost of the industry's best-selling signature item, brisket, increased, making it even more difficult to make a profit off it.

So how does one sell lean white meat to a bunch of red meat lovers? Well, they didn’t quit selling brisket “cold turkey.” Instead, they simply changed the way the menu was put together. With science. 

The goal was to take the lessons learned from running a field experiment in one of the hottest food trucks in the area – 1775 Texas Pit BBQ – and use it as a template for rolling out changes across the whole state. 

Melina Palmer, Founder and CEO of The Brainy Business (which provides behavioral economics consulting to businesses from around the world), and her colleague, Jeff Pool, share their insights on how to use behavioral economics to boost profitability. These BE principles transcend far beyond menu engineering and offer immediate practical advice and tips on how to apply them to your business.

Make turkey the new black 

They decided to use a font stencil that was much easier to read and made the menu far more comprehensive and less messy. 

Customers knew the turkey was there, they just didn’t think it was the right fit for them, as the team found out when they casually chatted them up while waiting in line. How can you encourage people to try something they never would’ve dared trying before? Offer them a discount? You could do that, but then you’d be selling yourself short, literally. There’s no need to trim your margins down even further. The good news is that with behavioral science, it’s a piece of cake. 

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Choose a clean font and get rid of that messy layout

As you can see, items on the original menu were described in a very basic way, and to make matters worse, having individual sections made it difficult for people to orient themselves. The penmanship only added salt to the wound.

The original menu was busy, and the illegible font made it even more difficult to decipher. It’s no wonder customers were less likely to study it thoroughly and more likely to opt for the no-brainer option – the brisket with low sales margins. Source: 1775 Texas Pit BBQ

Although 1775 Texas Pit BBQ doesn’t try to come across as a fine dining experience or a swanky restaurant with a menu printed out in a fancy cursive font, the font does matter here too. How easy or difficult something is to read has a huge impact on how quickly we process the information and how quickly we’re able to make a decision. 

Usually, the longer we deliberate, the less content we are with the decision we’ve made, or the more likely we are to stick to the options we know (if you’ve ever spent more than 5 minutes choosing a movie on Netflix, then surely you can relate). 

How easy or difficult something is to read has a huge impact on how quickly we process the information and how quickly we’re able to make a decision.

Put it on top and choose juicy language

Anchoring

People’s tendency to rely and base their decisions on the first piece of information (often a number) offered. The anchor creates a reference point to which people compare other prices.

The second little tweak was to give turkey and sausage a more prominent position on the menu. The first information we see is our “anchor.” Anything that comes after that, we tend to compare with that anchor. That’s why if you see a $40 wine on the menu first, the $20 one you see right afterward feels way cheaper as if you had first seen a $6 wine. Simply put, a well-placed anchor can make other prices seem more palatable in comparison.

Though Jeff's team could use the brisket in the same way (given it was the most expensive item on the menu), they decided to move it down the menu, or “bottom-list” it. 

Salience

Everything that stands out, is novel, or seems relevant, captures people’s attention, and makes it more likely to affect their thinking and actions.

As he points out, behavioral science shows that items placed at the top of the menu are more salient to people when they look at it: they usually choose the top two items. That’s why his research team put turkey and sausage on top to draw more attention to them and moved the brisket down to the bottom of the menu.

The third nudge to make these two items more popular was to describe both with “romance language,” as Jeff likes to refer to it. He claims they found four ways that people describe food (and you can use them to make an item more appealing): 

One is sensory (taste or how the food was prepared), such as slow-smoked pork or crisp and refreshing cucumber salad. Another one is geography, like Czech, German-style. Then, of course, there’s nostalgia: “Bellinda’s corn casserole” or “Granny's apple tart.” And finally, there’s branding such as USDA Prime Brisket. Though all are standalone, Jeff makes a point of saying a nice, well-rounded mix of the four works best. 

On the 1775 Texas Pit BBQ menu, the basic turkey was replaced by “slow-smoked turkey breast.” Adding “breast” was important, Jeff says, as people might be hesitant to order it since they might wonder whether it was a breast or the far less popular turkey leg. 

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This kind of uncertainty might steer them toward the devil they know, rather than the devil they don’t. To increase the perceived value of it and make it feel more superior, the team added a description of how it was made: “smoked slowly to keep it juicy and freshly sliced to release all of its flavors.” Can you feel your taste buds perk up at the thought of that? Now compare it to reading just “turkey.” 


Though not the case here, these types of details matter because they make even pricier items easier to justify. We, as humans, are not objective arbiters of value. That’s why we evaluate whether something is worth paying the price for by quickly assessing how much time or proxy for time – effort – had been put into creating the product or providing the service.

After making some changes, the menu is now neat and chunked into 4 comprehensive categories. The top two items on the list are also more salient thanks to their more thorough descriptions in comparison with other items on the menu.

Make it easier to try 

When changing minds makes people try new things, status quo bias (the overvaluation of what we know at the expense of trying something different) often kicks in, and self-herding (sticking to the choices we’ve previously made) makes us more likely to stick to the option we know. Interestingly, women are even more susceptible to this. 

Here, lowering the barrier of the trial was key. To make customers more prone to experiment but perceive it as lower stakes, the new menu offered more options to mix and match. Creating a sampler meant you could try a little piece of each meat. So even if the turkey was not something to write home about (which, by the way, it was), this outcome would still be better than getting a whole turkey and then having to stare at a friend who got the “old faithful” brisket with a pinching sense of envy. 

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Last but not least, the team redesigned the original “plate your order” system in which pre-change customers could get either 1, 2, or 3 portions of meat, 2 sides, and a drink for a fixed price (regardless of what kind of meat they picked). Since they would pay the same for the plate – even if they chose a cheaper item such as a turkey – this setup inherently made it harder to pick turkey. 

Jeff's team changed this. In the new “plate your order” system, one could get 2 sides + a drink for the fixed price of 6 dollars. It cost the same regardless of whether a customer chose the most expensive or cheapest meat, they’d only pay for the exact meat they got (similar to McDonald’s where the price of the sandwich determines the price of the menu). “So now, customers didn’t feel like they were penalized for choosing the turkey and overpaying on the plate in comparison with others,” Jeff summarises.

As you can see, the team has rolled out all these changes at once. As Jeff explains, the original menu was so confusing that they decided to change it all at once, not by a series of small, incremental changes. To nudge customers away from the brisket and get them to try something that they normally wouldn’t try was a Herculean task, so the menu needed to undergo a radical change. 

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Want to test something out? Timing matters 

The new menu was rolled out (or more like drawn) in November 2019. But the team had only just begun collecting the data in mid-January, not right after the switch. The reason was simple. The end of the year is filled with holidays and festivities (Thanksgiving, Christmas) during which a higher volume of turkey is consumed, which could skew the results. Pushing the measuring of the impact up allowed Jeff and his colleagues to clear their data from seasonality effects.  

What they found was that turkey sales went up 30 percent almost immediately, and within six months (even during COVID) they were up four-fold, with a 50 percent increase in sausage sales. Interestingly enough, the sales of the ribs and brisket stayed about the same. Jeff concludes that instead of ordering just one type of meat, people started to mix and match. All thanks to a few tiny tweaks based on an understanding of how our minds work.

Key Takeaways

  • Reduce uncertainty to bridge the gap between intention and action. Is there a concern that needs to be addressed upfront? Do it early on and in plain language. In this case, it meant explaining that turkey was a higher quality breast, not an inferior leg.
  • Lower the barrier of trial. Design your offer in a way that allows customers to experience a new thing with lower risk or without the fear of repercussions. In this example, it meant adding a sampler which included turkey as well as “the safe option” –  brisket. 
  • Descriptions help a lot. Mix and match different components. When it comes to food, use words that create a sense of nostalgia or a sensory feeling. Does it make sense to mention geography or a brand name? Do it for the items or products you want to steer attention to. More broadly speaking, make sure to include a story about how a product has been prepared, or how the experience your customer is about to enjoy has been crafted and how much effort and forethought went into the process to make it feel more valuable. 
  • Be careful about measuring the impact. Seasonality could be a factor, so be aware of that. Ask yourself: “Are there any other factors at play here right now that might lead to an increase during this period regardless of my intervention?” If the answer is yes, then postpone the roll-out, or at the very least postpone measuring the results.


Introduction of an expert
  • Case study by
  • Melina Palmer
  • Founder & CEO, The Brainy Business