Menu descriptions help sales, study says

Cornell University study finds descriptive menu labels build sales.

Published in FSD C&U Spotlight

cafeteria menu

Having trouble building sales of that new menu item? Try including more descriptive labels, says a recent report from the Cornell Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y.

During a six-week field study within a faculty cafeteria at a Midwestern university, Brian Wansink, marketing professor and director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, and his team of researchers found that sales of menu items with descriptive labels were 27% higher than items without descriptive labels. In addition, customers who ate items menued with descriptive labels consistently rated the items as being of higher quality and a better value than customers rating items with regular labels.

Not only can descriptive labels help operations generate first-time trial of items, the study finds, they can also impact overall customer impression and support repeat sales. “When people have positive associations with a descriptive label, a chain reaction of positive attitudes and intentions follows. That is, after enjoying their meal, customers are more likely to give the meal a positive evaluation for quality and of a better value,” states the report.

Noting that descriptive labeling can be broken into multiple categories, such as geographic, nostalgic or sensory, the study aimed to test a variety of description types “to determine if the general use of descriptive labels was more effective than not using them.” The study found that the most effective description type depends on the item that it is describing but should always use favorable and positive language.

While customers are more responsive to descriptive menu labels, the study also found that consumers will not pay more for well-described items. “One possible explanation of this can be attributed to the anchoring effect that the purchase price had on their estimate of how much they would be willing to pay,” the study, in combination with previous research, found. “Were the purchase price still salient, it would be the most prominent predictor of how a customer believes he or she should pay. That is, if a customer recently paid $3.99 for an entrée, he or she is likely to say that $3.99 is the most they would pay for that item, even if they would pay more in another context.”

Food quality, regardless of its menu description, should always meet customer expectation, the report concludes. Foodservice operations “should monitor their use of descriptive labels in order to avoid unjustifiably inflating their customers’ expectations. But beware of the temptation to label yesterday’s goulash as ‘Royal Hungarian Top Sirloin Blend.’ It will generate first-time sales, but they may be the last.” 

More From FoodService Director

Ideas and Innovation
vote buttons pins

On every other Thursday of our four-week cycle menu, we allow K-8 students to pick the entree choices. The media center specialist for each of the participating schools sets up the list of entree items on a computer for voting, and the winning entrees are given to cafeteria managers two weeks before the upcoming month to put into production. Students really like this, as it promotes ownership of the menu.

Ideas and Innovation
chalkboard

We highlight our North Carolina products on a large chalkboard in our dining halls, and also list any produce we bring in from our own agroecology farm. It helps tell our story—positive and local.

Ideas and Innovation
raised garden beds

We have raised garden beds that residents can reserve and use to grow their own plants. Whenever a resident brings me fresh produce from their own garden, I try and incorporate it into a dish. If I do end up using it, I will display the resident’s name and what the produce was next to the dish on the menu.

Ideas and Innovation
chartwells teaching kids

Curriculum for the mobile teaching kitchen centers around a single kid-friendly recipe, using ingredients that can provide talking points for nutrition, sustainability and food origins. “The recipe is the lesson,” Saidel says. “Every ingredient is an opportunity to talk.”

Earlier this year, Saidel, Perkins and Harvey did a student demo featuring roasted chicken and white bean tacos with greens and citrus salsa. “We can say, ‘Why are we using chicken instead of beef? Why are there some beans in here?’ You can talk about plant proteins and the sustainability and health message around...

FSD Resources