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Psst. Fast Food Secret Menus Are Rare Spots of Fun in Assembly-Line Dining

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 31, 2018

For Literary Hub, Alison Pearlman writes about how secret menus at fast food joints like In-N-Out (4x4, animal style) and McDonald’s (a McDonald’s Double Cheeseburger with a McChicken sandwich crammed into it) are an attempt by customers to push back against corporate standardization.

As you might guess, chain restaurants with units in the many hundreds or thousands lean toward standardization. The larger the chain, the more it regulates everything from menus to service, which creates the public perception of a homogenous and regimented operation.

This is the strongest at limited-service chains because every segment of the company-designed encounter between patron and server is at its most rote. Regulars are supposed to be addressed the same way as first-timers. Managers don’t encourage servers to recall a repeat customer’s favorite dish or how much ice she likes in her tea. That would only slow operations down-the kiss of death for a high-volume operation. If a server does become familiar with a repeat customer, that relationship could lead to special treatment, such as extra generous provisions of fries or special sauce, but interactions like these stray from the company line.

The piece is excerpted from Pearlman’s new book on the design of restaurant menus, May We Suggest: Restaurant Menus and the Art of Persuasion, which sounds fascinating. As a former designer who still very much thinks like one, almost every time I interact with a restaurant menu, I’m looking at how it’s arranged and designed. I think often of William Poundstone’s analysis of Balthazar’s menu.

2. The price anchor. Menu consultants use this prime space for high-profit items, and price “anchors”, in this case the Le Balthazar seafood plate, for $115 (£70). By putting high-profit items next to the extremely expensive anchor, they seem cheap by comparison. So, the triple-figure price here is probably to induce customers to go for the $70 (£43) Le Grand plate to the left of it, or the more modest seafood orders below it.)

And of course, there’s the 11-page menu from Shopsin’s circa-2004 that defies all rational analysis, a “tour de force of outsider information design”.