The Menu Magician

Gregg Rapp knows just how to influence what you order

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It is dinnertime at a candlelit Mediterranean eatery, and Gregg Rapp is busily devouring ... the menu. He nibbles first at the design, evaluating its overall clarity. He then savors the food descriptions--ravioli with shaved truffles, breaded tenderloin piccata--locating words that give a sense of a dish's flavors and textures. Next he looks to see whether prices are integrated into the text or standing alone by the right-hand margin. Rapp gives our menu a passing grade: the descriptions are laden with helpful adjectives, and the prices are unobtrusive. But a pattern on the paper makes a couple of the entrées difficult to read and could visually discourage a customer from ordering these high-priced items. "Not bad," he concludes, "but it could always use some engineering." Naturally, he's the man for the job.

A "menu engineer" based in Palm Springs, Calif., Rapp works with restaurants across the country and around the world to transform innocent lists of meals into profitable, user-friendly sales tools. Although his clientele includes such prominent chains as Chili's, his daylong "menu boot camps" have helped bring sophisticated marketing know-how to mom-and-pop diners and corner pubs. The objective for eateries big and small: a menu that grabs the customer's eye and steers it to high-profit dishes and moneymaking add-ons (like the side salad that is only $3.99 extra when you order the entrée). Rapp is so sure of his menu makeovers that he offers a money-back guarantee that his menu will raise profits--and in his 25 years in the business, he has yet to issue a refund.

The first step is the design. Rapp recommends that menus be laid out in neat columns with unfussy fonts. The way prices are listed is very important. "This is the No. 1 thing that most restaurants get wrong," he explains. "If all the prices are aligned on the right, then I can look down the list and order the cheapest thing." It's better to have the digits and dollar signs discreetly tagged on at the end of each food description. That way, the customer's appetite for honey-glazed pork will be whetted before he sees its cost.

Also important is placement. On the basis of his own research and existing studies of how people read, Rapp says the most valuable real estate on a two-panel menu (one that opens like a magazine) is the upper-right-hand corner. That area, he says, should be reserved for more profitable dishes since it is the best place to catch--and retain--the reader's gaze.

Cheap, popular staples--like a grilled-chicken sandwich or a burger--should be harder to locate. Rapp likes to make the customer read through a mouthwatering description of seared ahi tuna before he finds them. "This is akin to the grocery store putting the milk in the back," he says. "You have to walk by all sorts of tempting, high-priced items to get to it."

The adjectives lavished on a dish can be as important as the names of the ingredients. What would you rather eat, plain grilled chicken or flame-broiled chicken with a garlic rub? Scrambled eggs or farm-fresh eggs scrambled in butter? "Think 'flavors and tastes,'" Rapp says, repeating a favorite mantra. "Words like crunchy and spicy give the customer a better idea of what something will be like." Longer, effusive descriptions should be reserved for signature items. Especially the profitable ones.