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Understanding the Psychology, and the Business of Restaurants!

In this article, we will discuss the topics of the Psychology of design, the psychology of the people, and the secret psychology of Restaurant Management.

While we’ve covered a wide range of subjects, my favourite thus far has been restaurant psychology. I’ve always been fascinated by human psychology — though honestly, who isn’t? Understanding how it transforms the dining experience, however, is particularly eye-opening. Think you chose that fillet mignon of your own free will? Think again. From interior design to menu item placement, successful restaurants use psychology to influence customers’ perceptions and decisions.

Design and Restaurant Psychology

Interior Design 

  • As most savvy restaurateurs are aware, colour has a huge effect on appetite. For example, did you know that red, yellow and orange are all appetite stimulants? 
  • Conversely, blue and green are appetite suppressants (Though, bar owners should note — blue tends to be a thirst stimulant.) So if you’re thinking of painting the walls of your steakhouse a pale green, you may want to reconsider.
  • These seemingly trivial decisions can significantly affect a restaurant’s profits. 

Menu Layout

  • Have you ever wondered why most menus are designed in a similar fashion? 
  • Research has shown that the human eye processes information written on a book-style menu in a specific order. When you open a menu, your eye immediately moves to the top right.
  • Then, in what is referred to as an “eye-bounce,” your gaze shifts to the middle of the page, then the top left, followed by the bottom left, back to the top right, and finally, down to the bottom right. In other words, the top right corner is prime real estate, as the only menu quadrant, your eye automatically bounces twice.
  • Conversely, the menu’s bottom right corner is the least profitable spot, as it’s the last place your eye bounces. This is why we so often find a restaurant’s most expensive dish — for example, a raw bar platter or lavish entrée — placed in the top right of the menu.
  • Inexpensive vegetable sides, however, are most often placed on the bottom right. 

Strategic Pricing

  • Two other tricks menu designers employ are boxing and bolding. 
  • These two techniques are designed to draw your eye to certain menu items — typically, the most expensive dish on the menu. This can serve two purposes. First, you’ll notice and hopefully order the very expensive dish. 
  • However, if you’re watching your budget, that more affordable pasta dish will seem like a great deal in comparison. Obviously, the cost of ingredients for these two menu items is very different, and they are priced accordingly. But by viewing the expensive item first, you’re more likely to feel excited about your decision, no matter which dish you choose.

Compliments of the Chef

  • A round of drinks or an appetizer on the house makes you feel pretty special, right? Well, have you ever stopped to think about the motivation behind this rock star treatment? No matter how wonderful or attractive you are, the waiter isn’t giving you this free food because he or she has a crush on you. Rather, it’s a strategic decision.
  • That free appetizer may cost the restaurant a few rands, but it just might secure your return visit. That second visit is worth far more than a R25.00 plate of complementary ingredients, but most of us fail to think of it in those terms. In fact, many restaurants have an unspoken rule: for every two drinks a customer buys, they will comp your third.

The Psychology of the People

What do loud music and uncomfortable chairs have in common? 

Prof. Stephani Robson ’88, hotel administration — a Cornell graduate and currently senior lecturer in the School of Hotel Administration — described them as “just a few tricks of the [restaurant] trade.”

  • Pointing out that “less control means less comfort,” Robson recommended creating an environment where customers feel comfortable, a feeling that comes from constructing a sense of “perceived control” over their environment.
  • For example, placing tables against the wall creates an enclosed area, which fosters a sense of control and protection. But, not every restaurant’s goal is to prolong customer stay. If owners desire to get customers out of space quickly, Robson suggested playing loud music or purchasing metal chairs.
  • This mechanism of increasing or reducing the turnover of customers operates on pretty intuitive logic, and this rationale has been exercised by restaurant managers throughout history.  “People had been using environmental psychology in restaurant design, but they didn’t [explicitly] talk about it,” Robson said.
  • Because of how subconsciously managers make these decisions—where to place a table, how high a booth should be — the study of restaurant configuration and consumer behaviour may not be the most obvious topic for a PhD. But, during Robson’s time in graduate school, she studied exactly that: environmental psychology — the interplay between individuals and their surroundings.
  • “I spent a lot of time measuring the space between tables with rulers,” said Robson, who recognized that her research’s very hands-on approach to academia was atypical. “You don’t have to do something really rarified and niche … I just found a new way of looking at very common problems.”
  • “Business really is psychology,” she said. “Think about it: business is about transactions between people. You must understand people to do business.”
  • “Students are rewarded too often for finding the right answer. In most subjects and in real life, there is no right answer…make connections among different disciplines, cultures, and your own experience,” Robson said. “The way that you think makes you unique and useful in business. If you can be useful, you have a competitive advantage.”

The Secret Psychology of Restaurant Management

  • While all business owners have to worry about creating the right culture and properly handling their customers, those in restaurant management face some significant additional challenges. Great restaurants are built by creating an atmosphere of comfort and pleasure, making the dining experience something to be anticipated and fondly remembered.
  • Fitting Your Management Psychology to Your Restaurant, of course, the type of oversight that is appropriate varies with the type of clientele and environment for the particular facility. 
  • However, if your goal is to build a long-term presence as a destination restaurant, there are several basic characteristics that will shape your approach. First and foremost, a fine restaurant is in the hospitality business, and that requires an attitude of a caring host, one who seeks to ensure the enjoyment of each customer. 
  • There is, in fact, an entire school of study that focuses on the concept of “psychological ownership” in the restaurant and hospitality industry. It is a complex subject, but the simple explanation is that effective restaurant management comes from developing a sense of ownership for the operation, even if not the actual owner. 
  • If you start with the philosophy of ownership as the cornerstone of restaurant management, every aspect of the role becomes more understandable and focused. For example, keeping a kitchen spotless even when there is no concern over an imminent inspection is the attitude of an owner, not just a paid manager. 
  • You want a clean and compliant kitchen because it reflects on you and keeps your customers safe. Likewise, you view your restaurant as a retreat for your customers, a place they can come and relax and enjoy a fine meal. 
  • Wanting to meet their expectations, you ensure everything from the menu to the design to the ambiance fits your concept of how to please. That makes it an act of sharing and enjoyment, not simply mechanically following checklists and regulatory requirements.

As a final point, the proper psychology for managing a restaurant is a proper perspective on profit. The goal of restaurant management is always to achieve the right balance between profit and quality. 

If you are delivering on the other elements, your customers will pay the price to deliver the quality they want and deserve. While all business owners have to worry about creating the right culture and properly handling their customers, those in restaurant management face some significant additional challenges. 

Great restaurants are built by creating an atmosphere of comfort and pleasure, making the dining experience something to be anticipated and fondly remembered.

Marius Joubert
Author: Marius Joubert

Founder of the first true community for the restaurant and hospitality industry.

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