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Study counters prevailing restaurant menu theories

New data shows consumers read menus like books, pick entrées first

New university research has debunked prevailing theories about how customers read restaurant menus, and instead showcases new data supporting a book-like approach to menu reading, as well as customers’ entrée-focused decision-making process when it comes to choosing a meal.

Scientific research just published by Sybil Yang, assistant professor of hospitality and tourism management at San Francisco State University, indicates customers read two-page menus like they would a book, meaning their eyes don’t flit about and land on a “sweet spot.” That sweet spot was previously believed to be above the midline on the right-hand page.

Yang’s peer-reviewed research, "Eye Movements on Restaurant Menus: A Revisitation on Gaze Motion and Consumer Scanpaths," was published last week in the International Journal of Hospitality Management.

“We have enough evidence from the study to show how people compose their meals,” Yang said Monday. “They choose the entrée first and then build their meal around it.

“They make two passes,” she said. “On their first pass, they spend more time and concentration on the entrée section. On the second pass, their eyes spend more time on other menu categories and skim quickly over the entrée section.”

Since 1978, when graphic designer William Doerfler published scan-path research in a Cornell University quarterly, menu designers played on the conventional wisdom of a menu "sweet spot" where eyes, after zigzagging across the pages, were attracted to a spot just above the midline on the right-hand page.

Thanks to development in infrared retinal eye-scanning technology that used cameras to track retinal movements and didn’t require participants to use bite bars or chin rests to hold their heads steady, Yang was able to create new data that heavily supports the “book-reading” approach.

Yang found people read the menu sequentially like a book, moving from left to right and down the pages of the two-page menu. They read slowly, suggesting that they were reading for information rather than just scanning the pages.

While debunking the “sweet spot” theory, Yang did, however, find menu “sour spots” in her research, which was conducted with 25 subjects in 2008. The menus were printed in black ink on cream stock with the only box being around the antipasto category. Subjects read through the mock menu and then choose a meal. Her research used sequence averaging, such as that used in word-processing spell checkers and DNA sequencing.

The sour spot was found to be at the bottom of the page in the right- and left-hand corners, Yang said. That area contained information about the restaurant and a list of salads.

Yang said she is turning her research attention to restaurant menu decoys, or “the items that are never meant to be chosen, but are placed there to affect your other choices.” An example, she said, includes the $199.99 order of 20 Buffalo wings and a bottle of Dom Perignon at Hooters restaurants.

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless

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