11 sneaky restaurant tricks

Restaurants have some clever ways of getting you to spend more than you'd planned.

By Stacy Johnson Nov 30, 2012 3:51PM

This post comes from Amanda Geronikos at partner site Money Talks News


Money Talks News logoGoing out to eat is fun and relaxing, but when it comes to cost, many of us bite off more than we can chew.


The average household spends about $2,500 at restaurants annually, according to the National Restaurant Association. While we like to think we're in control of what we spend, it's easy to give in to the tricks restaurants use to make us pay more. 

Here are 11 tricks of the restaurant trade. Knowing what they are is the first step to avoiding them.


1. Salty snacks at the bar

Those complimentary pretzels and peanuts weren't set in front of you as a kind gesture. They're there so you'll order more drinks. Salty snacks make you thirsty. End of story.


Image: Restaurant (© Medioimages/Photodisc/Getty Images/Getty Images)2. Menu design

Our eyes have a natural tendency to look at the right side of the menu first, so restaurants usually list their most expensive dishes in that area. Some restaurants put their most expensive items at the top of the menu, so other items look more reasonably priced. Shaded boxes and borders around menu items also attract hungry patrons and can increase sales.


3. Lack of dollar signs

Have you noticed that more restaurants are listing prices without dollar signs? That's no coincidence. In a Cornell University study, guests given a menu with only numbers and no dollar signs spent significantly more than those who received a menu with prices either showing dollar signs or written out in words.


4. Flowery descriptions

Which sounds better: "Classic Burger" or "Tavern-Style Burger with Frizzled Onions and Smoky Barbecue Sauce"? According to a six-week field experiment by Cornell (.pdf file), menus that had descriptive or creative food descriptions, rather than items with simple names, increased sales by 27%. To add insult to injury, scrumptiously described dishes often cost more.


5. Extremely friendly servers

I've personally fallen victim to this, and you probably have too. While dining at a restaurant in Chicago, I met the world's friendliest server and gave him an exceptionally generous tip (he made it a point to thank me for my kindness). According to another study by Cornell, my behavior was common. Customers leave higher tips when their servers personally introduce themselves, crouch beside the table, or ask about your day.


6. The upsell

The servers who grip your wallet with their charisma also pull you in with the classic upsell, and they're very good at it. That same Chicago server also convinced me that his restaurant had some of the best burgers in the city and persuaded me to buy a premium beer that would pair well with the burger.


7. Music

Classical music makes you spend. According to the Daily Mail, University of Leicester researchers found that classical music, associated with affluence, encouraged spending at restaurants, while a lack of music caused diners to spend drastically less.


8. Package deals

All-you-can-eat specials and buffets appeal to diners looking for a good value. While there may be a discount, restaurants pull out the tricks to get you to eat less. You've probably noticed that buffet lines often start with an assortment of low-cost breads and salads to fill you up before you even get to the meat. Sugary beverages can also fill you up. You might also find shallower plates (that hold less food) and uncomfortable chairs that discourage sitting for extended periods of time.


9. Questionable specials

"Specials" aren't always so special. In fact, they often include leftover ingredients or food that is set to expire soon. And while deals are out there to be had, sometimes specials can cost just as much as a regular-priced meal.


10. Forced waiting

Restaurant staffers make you wait so they can divert your attention to the lounge, causing you to spend more money.


11. Soups and salads trick

Many people often order a soup and salad under the assumption these items are cheaper (and more healthful). But they're not always a good deal. Salad bar items are often marked up more than 350%.


More from Money Talks News and MSN Money:


Nov 30, 2012 4:54PM
this is ridiculous!!  Having been a server, i agree with everything else but the server comment.  How is being friendly, nice all that jazz a "trick"??  We have to earn an income too and pay for the same products/services everyone else does.  Sorry for being a good person...
Nov 30, 2012 5:57PM
Well yea I tip my server better if they are friendly.  How is being nice a sneaky trick?

Nov 30, 2012 6:29PM

I like friendly staff.  And if I'm dining at a fine restaurant I often ask the servers suggestion or ask the waiter to please have the chef recommend a wine with my entree or at a restaurant I really know and trust, ask the chef to "surprise me" with an entree and wine of his choice.


I GLADLY tip more for excellent service.  I certainly don't consider friendly and high quality service a "trick".

Nov 30, 2012 5:12PM

If you can't afford to eat out, you shouldn't go to restaurants unless you are working there....just a thought (OK, one taken from Dave Ramsey)...

P.S.   I feel major chains expand on the backs of their servers - they pay them little, hoping that they'll be compensated by generous folks generously tipping.

Nov 30, 2012 10:32PM
I guess if you're a sucker you can fall for these. I can look at a menu and figure out that "10.99" is the same as "$10.99". Really not that hard. I don't drink alcohol so they don't have me there. What's the difference in putting item description in the title or the description? I read both so I know what I'm getting. There must be a lot of gullible people out there.
Nov 30, 2012 8:41PM
I agree with most. But how is being friendly a rip off? I will not tollerate a rude waitperson. I will however, compensate a nice waitperson. If i go out to eat, i usually know how much it will cost me, give  or take a couple of bucks.  If its gonna cost me too much, i won't go there.
Nov 30, 2012 9:45PM
I don't agree with any of this being tricks. It's just good marketing techniques. I figured this would be dirty tricks like giving you a 2nd drink without asking you then charging you for it.
Nov 30, 2012 6:22PM
I hate the forced waiting at Olive Garden.  Unfortunately, my family really likes to gather there for birthday celebrations.  Next time that happens, I'll go to the quaint, inexpensive sushi place across the street and fill up over there.  Then when we finally get seated at Olive Garden, maybe I'll just have a bowl of Zuppa Toscana.  'Cause really, that stuff is pretty irresistible.
Dec 3, 2012 11:12AM
Thank you for speaking about the server aspect of this- most disappointing. This is something I do for a living and I can assure you the positive energy and good attitude I bring to my job in midtown Manhattan is not a sneaky parlor trick. I am a good person and I work hard; I try to give my customers a great experience and help them enjoy their night (or day) out. This is the wrong message to send to the general population.
Dec 1, 2012 3:41AM
They forgot to mention "nickel and diming"  where the burger costs not so much but you have to pay EXTRA for bacon and EXTRA for grilled onions and EXTRA for cheese and it ends up costing way more.  Same for a burrito that does not come with guacamole or sour cream.  It looks cheap at first but you end up getting nickled and dimed.  One local restaurant called the PINER CAFE ended up costing me almost 20 dollars for a burger and a side of fruit salad and I did not even get a drink or dessert!!
Dec 1, 2012 12:06AM
My personal favorite was a Thai place that start doing an all you can eat buffet. The  first plate was normal sized. Every trip after the first they gave you a teacup saucer. I never make it past a second trip anyway but it just seemed chintzy. Never have been back.
Dec 1, 2012 1:37AM
What tricks?  Most of those items are reasons why I go to restaurants!  It's like accusing ice cream of tricking me into liking it so much that I pay for it.  I WANT salty snacks and appetizing descriptions and friendly wait staff and music and special deals and soups and salads and other value added items.  That's what I'm there for.  Shut up and let them take my money.
Dec 3, 2012 2:36PM
Heaven for bid, a restaurant making money?  How dare they try?!  Restaurants are the backbone of small business across this country.  They feed local economies, provide second incomes for struggling families, and support millions of college kids and in many cases help foot the bill.  Maybe an article about how our large corporations in this country trick us would be more intersting. 
Dec 1, 2012 1:23AM
 Overly feigned interest is designed to get customers to give bigger tips but there's nothing wrong with that. Better freindly manipulation than rude or non existant service. Just because we're aware you're not really concerned with how our day went doesn't mean we don't appreciate the gesture. After all how many of us really care when we exchange routine pleasantries?
Dec 3, 2012 2:10PM
Actually, to me, restaurant people are idiots. I get what I want, at a price I'm willing to pay. And I *always* start with the left side. No dollar signs? No problem. I know what a price is without them. Oh, and you wanna make me wait? The amount of tip you get is directly proportional to the quality of service I get.
Dec 3, 2012 3:04PM
How about the "recommended" (or in some cases, required) 18% tip? This is either the restaurant owner's trying to get out of paying his staff more, or not being honest enough to raise his prices.  also: remember "sharing fees"?  I haven't seen a restaurant try that in a while.  Once I pay for food, it's mine.
Dec 3, 2012 10:22AM

There was a nice place we use to go to not far from the house, then the place changes ownership and TV's went in and the service went down.

I think the new owner should read this story!

Dec 3, 2012 5:35PM
The waiters at Chili's sometimes crouch beside the table.  I don't like it.  I really just wish restaurants would pay their waiters a fair salary and forget the tipping deal.  I hate it!  I also hate that in New Orleans most of the restaurants say, No separate checks!  What?  I couldn't believe it.  It's all such a crock!
Dec 3, 2012 5:34PM

#1. Most bars that serve alcohol are requried to serve some sort of food (i.e. easy to eat/keep/stock, salty snacks..weird!) so people aren't drinking completely on empty stomachs. Maybe check the facts before you post ridiculous statements like this.


I don't understand #5, the "Extremely friendly server." Do you want a rude one? Please tell me. Restaurants pride themselves on having great service to retain their customers.


#6 Not all servers try to upsell things. I value the fact that as a server, I try to be as honest with customers as possible and let them know when things cost extra.


I'm also not an "idiot" as one person noted about "restaurant people" in the comments. I have a Bachelor's degree, but use serving as a way to supplement my income. Sure, judge others, but at least wait until you've met and/or know them before you do.

Dec 3, 2012 7:31PM
I work at a restaurant, and I take HUGE offense to this article. I was hired because of my charisma, and I can assure you that the respect I show my guests is not feined for my own financial benefit, but just part of how I conduct myself in my everyday life. Introducing myself in not a ploy to make more money, it is a requisite part of my job. Servers make an hourly wage of $2.50 to $5 an hour, depending on the state they work in. Tips are how we pay our bills. Upselling is also a job requirement, not some sort of conspiracy we perpetrate to"get a grip" on our guests wallets. This defense is directed at the author. To restaurant patrons, firstly and foremost, we in the restaurant industry appreciate your business. I suppose I am writing this to remind readers that we are employees just like you, who work hard for our money and are bound by company policy that we may or may not agree with but abide by respectfully.
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