Skift Take

Restaurant menus aren't random, they're carefully crafted and chosen with more in mind than taste alone — especially when it comes to chains.

chefslogo_use-for-socialEditor’s Note: In September we announced that Skift was expanding into food and drink with the addition of the Chefs+Tech newsletter. 

We see this as a natural expansion of the Skift umbrella, bringing the big-picture view on the future of dining out, being fanatically focused on the guest experience, and at the intersection of marketing and tech.

We publish C+T twice weekly.

Food Psychology and Restaurants

Remember that episode of Portlandia where Steve Buscemi plays a celery salesman who gets to meet the man behind bacon’s rise to menu prominence? Turns out, the story isn’t all that far-fetched — there was a bacon guy. (In the early 1920s, even). It was the early start of food psychology, fascinating manipulation and signals that shape how we eat. (In short, the “bacon guy” was a representative from a packaging company who got one doctor to ask 5,000 other doctors if a hearty breakfast was better than the traditional-at-the-time breakfast of coffee and a roll. When 4,500 of them agreed that sure, a big breakfast is great, he wrote up the results and publicized the results to newspapers around the country.) Thus, the bacon-and-eggs breakfast and food psychology came to pass.

The Ringer tells this and also the super interesting story of a modern-day food psychologist who conducted and publicized (and publicized) tons of food studies that have gone on to shape how we eat. He’s credited with suggesting those wildly successful 100-calorie snack packs to Kraft, among many other things. The story twists and turns a few times, but the ending is that many of these “studies” weren’t exactly credible by any standard, yet people went along with them because they made sense.

I’m not naive enough to believe that there’s not a ton of manipulation and food psychology behind the modern-day restaurant menu. Of course there is. Ingredients can become trendy because of taste, but also because of great marketing efforts. What’s interesting, though, is the different path that a trendy ingredient has to take to make it onto a restaurant chain menu. For an independent restaurant, adding a new menu item isn’t usually an earth-shaking change; if it looks good at the market, a chef can buy a ton of it and add it to the night’s menu. This sort of nimbleness is the backbone of farm-to-table restaurants with changing menus.

What’s harder, though, is for a restaurant with 2,000 locations — like Chipotle, for example — to add a new item to its lineup. Last year, the chain introduced chorizo as a protein option, and now it’s considering dropping the product. If you’ve been to San Francisco’s La Taqueria, a.k.a. the the spot that serves the best burrito in town according to both me and FiveThirtyEight, you know that chorizo is a menu stalwart; if it fell off, people would be extremely unhappy. Apparently, though, the ingredient hasn’t caught on as Chipotle expected given how it performed in test markets. And for any restaurant chain that values its bottom line, adding a new ingredient won’t come without significant research and testing. So: Are restaurants responding to what we want to eat, what they want to cook, or what they want us to think we want to order?

The ThinkFood Lab Is a Concept Everyone Should Get Behind

In July, José Andrés’ ThinkFood Group opened its ThinkFoodLab real-world research and development restaurant around the corner from its downtown Washington, D.C. headquarters. C+T general manager Jason Clampet was briefly in town and took a quick tour of the space with TFG employees. While the space could easily be confused with other fast-casual offerings, a number of things stood out. The menu, for one, avoids the build-your-own approach of many (if not most) new concepts. Instead it features a tiered approach that goes from familiar to more Spanish along the way, with entry points for varying levels of sophistication. Beyond the leadership of Andrés’ lieutenants, technology is clearly at the center of it all, allowing flexibility to change things based on sales or giving staff the freedom to take orders along the lines if the crowds get too big.

The main question we had walking out of the space was why more food groups haven’t tried this. ThinkFood Group isn’t a huge one by restaurant group standards. While a pop-up Cheetos-themed restaurant may get mountains of press, it possesses both the staying power and learnings of a Snapchat exchange. But a space with smart people thinking about what should go inside it and leadership that encourages a bit of vision and innovation is enough to kickstart a regional chain — or at least keep you from launching the latest big flop. Expect copy cats.

Starbucks App Success Is Its Own, Not a Lesson for Restaurants

According to Barron’s, Starbucks is teaching Silicon Valley a lesson in mobile payments, but the story here is actually that Starbucks has been able to leverage technology to add elements of excellent hospitality into a transaction that was previously cut and dry. Now, instead of ordering a blonde roast and getting out of there, they know your name and birthday plus they made it easier to pay. (I suppose you could argue the Starbucks practice of writing names on order cups creates familiarity, but it’s really just an efficiency measure. Besides, when’s the last time you heard a nice story about a Starbucks employee getting someone’s name correct?)

Last quarter, 30 percent of Starbucks orders were paid via mobile, either order ahead or in-store. Its app balances ordering, payments, loyalty, and rewards. Starbucks is a great success story because it has used technology to create good hospitality — with proven results. How close could a restaurant get to this level of hospitality by building their own technology? Plenty are trying, but Starbucks has an ideal scenario here, because loyal guests will visit literally every day for their coffee. There aren’t many restaurants that can claim the same retention. So, Starbucks gets a daily opportunity to train its guests to use things like mobile pay and rewards.

Starbucks is a big success here because its digital presence touches all parts of the in-store experience. And now, the in-store experience is shaped by the digital one, as the company is hiring dedicated staff to manage mobile orders and rethinking layouts to accommodate different traffic flow. But comparing Starbucks to other restaurant chains isn’t exactly apples to apples, because Starbucks isn’t exactly a restaurant. Instead, others looking to win on mobile the way that Starbucks has would do better to keep an eye to the full guest experience and use the brand’s digital messages to enhance in-store hospitality.


  • 12 reasons restaurants should offer mobile payments (It’s a projected $62 billion industry in 2017) — Modern Restaurant Management
  • Trying to understand the rise of fast casual in a fast-food nation – Washington Post
  • Ruby Tuesday tests delivery and a pared-down lunch menu amid a year of operational changes instituted by its new CEO — Nation’s Restaurant News
  • Domino’s and Ford are testing consumer response to robot pizza delivery — Bloomberg

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Tags: starbucks

Photo credit: Interior of the Pepe Restaurant concept in Washington, D.C. from ThinkFoodGroup Rey Lopez / ThinkFoodGroup

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