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kottke.org posts about Balthazar

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”.

Soho’s food machine

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 18, 2013

Here’s how Balthazar, one of Manhattan’s busiest and most-beloved restaurants, serves 1500 meals every single day.

Roughly one in 10 people who enter Balthazar orders the steak frites. It is far and away the restaurant’s best-selling dish, and Balthazar can sell as many as 200 on a busy day. A plate of steak and potatoes requires a tremendous input of labor if you’re going to charge $38 for it. At a smaller restaurant, cooks are typically responsible for setting up their own mise-en-place — preparing food for their stations — before each service begins, but at Balthazar, things are necessarily more atomized. The fries, for example, go through numerous steps of prep, done by a few different people, before they wind up on a plate.

Step 1 begins at about 6:30 a.m., when Diogene Peralta and Ramon Alvino, the prep cooks in charge of potatoes, each grab a 50-pound case of GPODs, from the Idaho company that sources Russet Burbank potatoes, known for their consistency, and place a massive plastic tub on the floor behind them. This morning, Alvino is flying, his left hand’s fingers imperceptibly rotating the potato between upward strokes of the peeler, blindly flipping the naked spuds over his shoulder into the tub. I pull up my phone’s stopwatch to time him for a minute, treating each potato as a lap: his slowest is 10.7 seconds, his quickest 6.4. Alvino, a shy man from the Dominican Republic, has been doing this same job for 15 years. “Like anything else, it was difficult at first,” he says, but he caught his rhythm after a couple of months. Peralta has been at it for 14 years. Today, they will peel and chip about 600 pounds of potatoes. (Since russet supplies are short in late summer, Balthazar stockpiles thousands of cases of potatoes in a New Jersey warehouse.) Next, they will soak them in water that must be changed three times in order to leach out starch. The potatoes that are peeled today won’t be fried, actually, until tomorrow, and then refried — but that’s another guy’s job.

What an intricately designed system; even the menu is designed to drive profit.