November 3, 2005

'Menu Engineer' Reveals Food Marketing Secrets

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Nearly a hundred students gathered to hear Gregg Rapp, one of the world’s only menu engineers, deliver a lecture entitled “The Hidden Psychology of Restaurant Menus” yesterday. Rapp has consulted on menus for restaurants such as Wolfgang Puck’s Spago, Disney, Hilton Hotels and Marriott Hotels.

Prof. Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, introduced Rapp and explained that the Food and Brand Lab invites two major speakers to campus each fall.

“One is always an inside source who understands consumers in a way we don’t,” Wansink said. Last night, Rapp was that inside source.

He began his lecture by telling audience members about how he got started in the menu engineering business. Rapp, who was attending school in Pullman, Wash. at the time, found his calling when a local restaurant filing for bankruptcy requested his marketing expertise.

“Within three months, I turned the restaurant into a successful operation. I was 21 years old and I was having more fun that I’ve ever had,” Rapp said.

His secret was in creating a calendar for the restaurant’s monthly promotions; each day became a special event for the patrons.

“If it was Yul Brenner’s birthday and you were bald, you got a free drink,” Rapp said. “I created a calendar, hoping that you would run your life around my promotions.” Rapp simultaneously taught a bartending class at the restaurant to position the bar as the best in town.

After that, Rapp began studying menus and questioning how people read them. Through his research, he discovered that most menu companies only care about the printing of the menus.

Rapp looked at newspapers, catalogs, department stores and supermarkets and asked questions such as: “How do people read the news?” and “How do people order from catalogs?” “I put all this thinking into menu design,” Rapp said.

Rapp’s strategy is to fill out index cards for each item on the menu, calculating the profitability and popularity of each food choice.

In the example Rapp described, crab cakes was the most profitable menu item at a particular restaurant.

“I’m going to do everything I can to sell crab cakes,” Rapp said. He explained that he would draw a box around the item on the menu, hang a neon sign in the restaurant advertising the great crab cakes, or provide customers with crab cake recipe cards.

“I’m going to dress up like a crab and swing from the chandelier to get you to buy crab cakes,” Rapp joked.

Rapp described his strategies for add-on menu items such as spinach salads, as well as desserts and drinks. The motto for drinks is, “The more crushed ice you sell, the more money you make,” Rapp said.

He went on to explain the different elements that go into selling menu items. According to Rapp, the first spot in a column is the best spot, and the last spot in a column is the fifth best spot. Rules are different for children’s menus.

“Kids remember the last thing you tell them. So, I always put the steak and lobster as the last item on a children’s menu,” Rapp said.

He explained that typeface is also a very important element in the world of menus. Upper and lowercase letters are easier to read than all caps. Boxes around an item drive up sales. Colors, logos, descriptions and white space often highlight items and lead to greater sales.

“An eye is basically lazy. It will go to the easiest thing on a page,” Rapp said.

For instance, he explained that eyes are nearly always drawn to photography; one would assume, then, that food photography on a menu would lead to more sales. In reality, food photography works for fast food restaurants, but “you can’t use it on the high end, because it reminds us of Denny’s,” Rapp said.

Dollar symbols kill sales because they remind consumers that they are spending money and position the menu so that it looks more like a price list than it does a menu.

In today’s world, Rapp believes that there is no excuse not to maximize restaurant profit though use of these stylistic tools.

“When you don’t have enough space to use these tools, make a bigger menu,” Rapp said.

Jessica DiMenna ’06 was surprised to find out about all the planning behind menus.

“I’m never going to read a menu the same way again,” she said. “It’s no longer just a list of possible food choices. The next time I go to the Boatyard Grill, I will be able to tell which item is the most profitable simply by the placement of the item on the menu.”

Rapp stressed the importance of the menu as a marketing tool. He also emphasized the necessity of learning about one’s customers. To him, customers are not simply “males, ages 18-25” – he makes an effort to dig deeper into patrons’ minds.

Rapp’s interaction with restaurant-goers led him to develop four general categories of customers: the Entree, the Dessert, the Recipe, and the Bar-B-Q. Entrees are quick and efficient businesspeople who know what they want; Desserts are deliberate, trendy, and people-oriented; Recipes are analytical, cautious menu readers; and Bar-B-Qs are emotional consumers who eat at restaurants for the people experience.

Rapp passes along this information to restaurant staffs, helping them target their service around the varying needs of their customers.

His methods appear to work: Rapp guarantees his clients will make $1,000 more in the first month with his suggestions or their money back. On average, Rapp estimates that most restaurants see a sales increase of $2,500 in the first month.

“The most important thing is that you sell from your heart and have a lot of fun in the business,” Rapp said.

Archived article by Jessica Liebman
Sun Staff Writer