Diner Beware

How restaurants trick you into eating less and spending more

Robin Davey

In the 1760s, Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau opened a series of Parisian shops that boasted a curative consommé. Although the main draw was the broth, Roze’s establishments also set a new standard for dining out, with individual tables, service throughout the day, and nice dishware. In her history of dining, Rebecca Spang credits Roze with inventing the modern restaurant.

Today, enterprising restaurateurs can skip the medicinal broth and head straight for the hard data. Economists, psychologists, and marketing professors alike have generated reams of instructive research about restaurants. Take visual cues that influence what we eat: A 2012 study on plate size and color reported, among other things, that diners served themselves about 20 percent more pasta when their plates matched their food [1]. Researchers in France found that when a dark-colored cake was served on a black plate rather than a white one, patrons perceived it as sweeter and more intense [2]. Lighting matters, too. When Berlin restaurant patrons ate in darkness, they couldn’t tell how much they’d had: those given extra-large portions ate more than everyone else, but were none the wiser—they didn’t feel fuller, and they were just as ready for dessert [3]. Time is money, but that principle means different things for different types of restaurants. Unlike fast-food and all-you-can-eat places, fine-dining establishments prefer customers who linger and spend. One way to encourage patrons to stay and order that extra round: put on some Mozart. British researchers found that when classical, rather than pop, music was playing, diners spent more [4]. Another study found that fast music hurried diners out [5]. Particular scents also have an effect: diners who got a whiff of lavender stayed longer and spent more than those who smelled lemon, or no scent [6].Meanwhile, things that you might expect to discourage spending—“bad” tables, crowding, high prices—don’t necessarily. A study out of Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration tracked 1,400 meals at a Chevys restaurant, to see which tables had the highest SPM—spending per minute. Diners at banquettes stayed the longest, but didn’t spend much more than those at other tables, so those tables had the lowest SPM. Diners at bad tables—next to the kitchen door, say—spent nearly as much as others but soon fled. The authors concluded that restaurateurs need not “be overly concerned about ‘bad’ tables,” given that they’re profitable [7]. As for crowds, a Hong Kong study found that they enhanced a restaurant’s reputation, suggesting great food at fair prices [8]. And doubling a buffet’s price led patrons to say that its pizza was 11 percent tastier [9]. When the check comes, diners can be downright capricious. One researcher who studies tipping found that if servers had blond hair [10] or crouched next to customers [11] while taking orders, they got bigger tips. Finally, when female servers drew a smiley face on bills, tips increased by about 20 percent—leaving everyone happy [12].

The Studies:
[1] Van Ittersum and Wansink, “Plate Size and Color Suggestibility” (Journal of Consumer Research, Aug. 2012)
[2] Piqueras-Fiszman et al., “Assessing the Influence of the Color of the Plate on the Perception of a Complex Food in a Restaurant Setting” (Flavour, Aug. 23, 2013)
[3] Scheibehenne et al., “Dining in the Dark” (Appetite, Dec. 2010)
[4] North et al., “The Effect of Musical Style on Restaurant Customers’ Spending” (Environment & Behavior, Sept. 2003)
[5] Milliman, “The Influence of Background Music on the Behavior of Restaurant Patrons” (JCR, Sept. 1986)
[6] Guéguen and Petr, “Odors and Consumer Behavior in a Restaurant” (International Journal of Hospitality Management, June 2006)
[7] Kimes and Robson, “The Impact of Restaurant Table Characteristics on Meal Duration and Spending” (Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, Nov. 2004)
[8] Tse et al., “How a Crowded Restaurant Affects Consumers’ Attribution Behaviour” (IJHM, Dec. 2002)
[9] Just et al., “Lower Buffet Prices Lead to Less Taste Satisfaction” (Journal of Sensory Studies, Oct. 2014)
[10] Lynn, “Determinants and Consequences of Female Attractiveness and Sexiness” (Archives of Sexual Behavior, Oct. 2009)
[11] Lynn and Mynier, “Effect of Server Posture on Restaurant Tipping” (Journal of Applied Social Psychology, April 1993)
[12] Rind and Bordia, “Effect on Restaurant Tipping of Male and Female Servers Drawing a Happy, Smiling Face on the Backs of Customers’ Checks” (JASP, Feb. 1996)