Encaptured by a Restaurant’s Menu

By Daniella Dimaunahan

Have you ever noticed how restaurants design their menu in order to catch the attention of customers and supposedly influence their overall dining experience? Choosing a meal from a restaurant menu may be quite challenging, especially if given a wide array of choices presented in an enticing and mouth-watering way. Given that various factors and an interaction between our senses are involved in the perception of flavor, you could probably notice that some restaurants try to incorporate this finding by including descriptive labels of the dishes in their menu. Then again, there are still some food joints that make use of generic and straightforward names in their menu labels.

Descriptive labels usually give the customer an idea of what to expect from the dish, including the food’s taste quality and how it will make them feel. It can be divided into four categories: geographic labels, affective labels, sensory labels, and brand labels. Geographic labels such as Southwestern Tex-Mex Salad and Cajun Fried Chicken claim to mimic similar flavors particularly found in a specific region. On the other hand, affective labels try to elicit a sense of nostalgia by using labels or adjectives that relate to family, tradition, and nationalism. Nana’s Favorite Chicken Soup, Grandma’s Homemade Apple Pie, and Home-style Chicken Parmesan are some good examples. Moreover, sensory labels aim to accurately describe the taste, smell, and texture of a menu item. Buttery Plump Pasta, Tender Grilled Chicken, and Satin Chocolate Pudding are some examples of sensory labels. Lastly, brand labels like Jack Daniels BBQ Ribs and Butterfinger Blizzard involves a cross-promotion with a popular but relevant brand.

Several studies have showed that labels could influence taste. However, most of these studies focused on nutritional labels, health labels, and warning labels, and not on descriptive marketing-oriented labels. In order to examine the relationship between descriptive food labels and taste and determine how consumers respond to these labels, Wansink, Painter, & van Ittersum (2001, 2005) conducted a six-week-long field experiment of six menu items in a faculty cafeteria at the University of Illinois. The items and conditions were presented in a systematic rotational pattern during the Tuesday and Friday lunch period until all items were present in all conditions. Two items would either have a basic label, a descriptive label, or would be taken out from the list. A questionnaire was given out once a diner selects one of the sex targeted menu items. The researchers found out that descriptive labels increased sales by 27%, increased post-trial evaluations of quality and value, increased restaurant-related attitudes, and increased customers’ intentions to return to the cafeteria. Menu items with descriptive names were rated as more appealing, taste, caloric, and of better quality and value. In spite of this, customers rarely said that they would pay more for the descriptively labeled item.

A study by Lockyer (2006) also confirms that the wording and description of a menu item does have an effect on the selection of items on a menu. Descriptive words such as “Tender”, “Golden”, and “Natural” had a positive effect to the choice of menu items and participants in this study had a preference for items that were clear, tasty, mouthwateringly described, fresh, and natural.

With this, it could be said that menu design and appropriate wording of menu items are especially important in the restaurant business. It may lead to an increase in sales and affect a customer’s overall satisfaction. So, for future restaurateurs and entrepreneurs, take note!! Descriptive labeling might be the key. 🙂


Goldstein, E. B. (2013). Sensation and perception (9th ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Lockyer, T. (2006). Would a restaurant menu item by any other name taste as sweet? Hospitality Review, 24(1). Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.fiu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1413&context=hospitalityreview

Wansink, B., Painter, J., & van Ittersum, K. (2001). Descriptive menu labels’ effect on sales. Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, 42(4), 68-72. Retrieved from http://foodpsychology.cornell.edu/sites/default/files/unmanaged_files/descriptivemenulabels-2001.pdf

Wansink, B., van Ittersum, K., & Painter, J. (2005). How descriptive food names bias sensory perceptions in restaurants. Food Quality and Preference, 16, 393-400. Doi:10.1016/j.foodqual.2004.06.005


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