too many menu options

Restaurant owners frequently fall into a trap when they structure their menus—they think like economists instead of like customers. A popular economic theory is that people seek to get as much as they can for the lowest price. That approach works at a feed store or a gas station, but most of the time your customers are looking for a memorable experience for a reasonable price.

I had an interesting experience at a restaurant the other day. My wife and I used to go to Noodles & Company almost every week—it was relatively cheap and you could get a wide variety of pasta dishes from around the world. We’d always order The Trio — you get an entree, meat of choice, and soup for just over seven bucks. What’s not to like?

We were driving around town a week ago and noticed that a Noodles & Company had opened up down the street. I was feeling nostalgic as I wandered in and noticed the familiar fragrance of curry and framed photographs of colorful chili peppers, spice markets and elephants in rice paddies. It was good to be back.

I looked at the menu and something was instantly wrong. Where did The Trio go? I recognized almost all of the options on the menu, but my special order was nowhere to be seen. In its place was a fully-customizable, a-la-carte menu with a price next to each option. I was disappointed to say the least.

The new menu sucked. This is why:

1. We like to feel like insiders

People want to feel special when they’re eating or shopping. By offering us a special package or a perceived discount, we felt less like a conventional customer and more like we slipped through the back door to hang out with the chef.

If your menu is complicated, add a simplified option that enables them to cut right to the best you have to offer. Or, if you have a simple menu, train your staff to “leak” an off-menu option or two to customers. Your goal is to help a customer feel like they almost have the place wired after their very first visit. Give them some kind of “insider tip” they can share with their friends and they will be more likely to talk about you.

Here’s a perfect example: ask anyone from California about In-N-Out Burger and they’ll tell you the “right way” to order a burger and fries from their secret menu.

2. We don’t want as many options as you think

Social scientists have found that people become confused and unhappy when presented with too many options. Offer two flavors and they become depressed; offer 23 and they’re too stressed out to buy.

People are unable to choose between 23 varieties of anything without feeling a sense of perceived loss from all the options they gave up. So don’t think that you’re maximizing customer happiness by offering them the kitchen sink.

An ice cream shop opened up across the street from our office a few months ago, and I think it strikes the perfect balance between simplicity and variety. I was pleasantly surprised when I walked in, because there were only five flavors at any given time. I could tell they had individually selected each one and it was really easy to figure out which flavor I would enjoy the most. And because the flavors changed from week to week, I made a point to come back.

Which brings me to my next point:

3. We want to feel that you’ve put careful thought into what you’re offering us

Customers want to feel a sense of mystery. Yes, that might sound like it contradicts Point #1, but the experience of a meal is more than the sum of its parts. If you take time to craft a new experience for the customer, they’ll remember the ambiance, the taste of the food and all those nice intangible things that ensure a return visit. If you show little imagination in the way you present your products, customers will treat them like commodities and focus mostly on the price.

Back to my Noodles & Company experience: when I added up the cost of my customized, a-la-carte meal (Wisconsin Mac & Cheese with beef and a Thai Curry Soup, in case you’re wondering), it came out to just under $8—the price of the original Trio—but I still felt nickel-and-dimed.

AvatarDave Cannon

Dave Cannon is a social entrepreneur based in the Pacific Northwest and contributor to After attending the BYU Marriott school he co-founded and raised over $100,000 for, a microenterprise e-commerce platform.