MCA’s Menu & Food Trends report sheds provides some valuable insight into emerging and established fashions in dish description. MCA market insight director Steve Gotham digs deeper and reveals the most commonly used phrases, the most popular indicators of provenance and also examines the latest movements in the psychology of pricing.

One of the slight nuisances of being involved in menu analysis is that it is not that easy to switch off. Whenever I am eating out I am scrutinising menus from a subtly different perspective from my more food-led companions who are wrapped up in dish descriptions and what might excite their taste buds. For me, I can’t help but get distracted by menu layouts, use of prices and product flags. Certainly, a wide range of menu insights feature strongly within MCA’s latest Menu & Food Trends report, and this brief article is aimed at whetting a few insight-hungry appetites – though I can accept no responsibility for any contagious consequences …

Skilful menu engineering has long been a combination of science and art, with some added dark arts for extra seasoning. The adoption of tactics such as higher margin lines emphasised with their own boxes, incorporating ‘price decoys’ to make neighbouring items appear more affordable and the downplaying of price by removing currency symbols and using smaller font for prices are all part of the game.

What might be new to some are a few insights around which particular dish descriptors are most commonly used to support higher dish prices. Using the Menu Tracker, we are able to confirm the following terms filled the Top three places in Autumn/Winter last year: and in reverse order, we have ‘matured’, ‘finest’ and then most popular of all, and with an average dish price of over £24, the leader is ‘recommended’. A common thread here is the association with higher priced steak dishes, which also helps account for the accompanying relatively high positions of the likes of ‘aged’, ‘rare’ and ‘prime’.

Highland ranking

The Top 20 ranking also includes several terms linked by the rising importance of provenance. In what I suspect would make a better quiz question, the ‘regions’ associated with the highest dish prices are (and again in reverse order) Scottish, Yorkshire and …Cornish.

The Menu Tracker analysis also reaffirms how the use of lengthier dish descriptors with multiple tenderising adjectives is directly associated with higher prices. The use of more descriptive language has long been a well-trodden path by more premium players, but is also one used more by value-led operators, and not always just to help offset the introduction of a higher price. Regarding those terms that are most commonly used across the casual restaurant market, we have found the adjective that has the highest incidence among operators is ‘fresh’/’freshly’. This is used by two-thirds of brands analysed – though maybe this proportion should be higher? For the curious, other popular terms include: ‘sweet’, ‘crispy’ and ‘classic’.

Returning to price, there has been much interesting research into the psychology of numbers. Prices ending in ‘.99’ certainly suggest value, but not always quality, while interestingly, those ending in ‘.95’ still retain a value benefit from the left-digit anchoring, but are perceived as relatively friendly. By contrast, more ‘stuffy’ perceptions are typically associated with ‘.00’, with this leading to several more confident and/or trendy operators to only use rounded, whole pound prices. Leading proponents of rounded pricing include the likes of Bel & The Dragon, Black & Blue and Balans. Conversely, leading devotees of ‘.99’ pricing include Harry Ramsden’s, Tinseltown and Ed’s Easy Diner. Potentially more surprising to some though, is the inclusion of TGI Friday’s and Chef & Brewer – both of whom have 40%+ of mains prices in this ‘0.99’ category.

In summary, menus perform strategically critical roles. They need to be simultaneously on-brand, easy to read and most importantly, profitable. With increasing pressures from rising costs, softening consumer demand and growing delivery, mastering menu design and pricing is only going to become an increasingly important corporate competence.