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Menu-priming and the art of storytelling, and how restaurants can guide and pre-condition guest experiences – Menu Engineering Part 3

“Story is what makes us human, not just metaphorically but literally. Breakthroughs in neuroscience reveal that our brain is hardwired to respond to story; the pleasure we derive from a tale well-told is nature’s way of seducing us into paying attention to it.”¹

The idea of storytelling is largely applicable, and often makes most sense, in a broader branding context. In hospitality. In retail. In the restaurant space.

However, I do believe elements of storytelling could play a small role in contributing to engineering a menu. Or at least having some sort of impact.

And who could resist a bit of philosophical, menu-engineering practicality?

“A powerful story can have a hand in rewiring the reader’s brain—helping instill empathy, for instance—which is why writers are, and have always been, among the most powerful people in the world.” ²

Before we Frankenstein and cross-apply contexts, let’s look at the basics.

“We talk a lot about content, but we often forget that story is the root of what makes content memorable. You have to think about stories pervading everything you do.”

~ Shane Snow


Oxford defines storytelling as “the activity of telling or writing stories.” The success of a great story, I believe, is evidenced in the audience’s engagement. How captivated they are by the plot. How much they feel for the characters. And most importantly, whether they stick around for the ending.

A book, a film, a Youtube video, a TikTok, an Instagram reel. They’re all stories. And they fall, rise and often suffer from audience engagement – or the lack thereof. Generally speaking.

“There isn’t any significant difference between the various brands of whiskey, or cigarettes or beer. They are all about the same. And so are the cake mixes and the detergents, and the margarines. The manufacturer who dedicates his advertising to building the most sharply defined personality for his brand will get the largest share of the market at the highest profit.”

~ David Ogilvy

Now, generally speaking, there are a few key elements (or principles) of storytelling – or a good story.

Not my own. Borrowed the 4 P’s of Storytelling from Muse University.

  • People are the characters in our story who give our audience someone to relate to. People connect with people. Therefore, we can use the notion of empathy to help move our audience.
    • My note: for the sake of context, we’ll split people into people-people, and characters (as in the menu items). Since they are kind of the main act.
  • Place is where your story happens. It grounds the story in reality. Place is more than just a backdrop—it’s a way to let your story speak for itself, display your character’s authenticity, and foster trust with the audience.
  • Purpose is what your story says to the audience. It’s what you want your viewer to take away from the story. By having a well-defined Purpose, you take on one clear vision that resonates throughout your team.
  • Plot is the structure of your story. It allows you to maximize the impact of your story by creating an emotional arc. That emotional arc is defined by a beginning, middle, and ending.

There are, however, other opinions and arguments around potentially a few missing and overlooked gospels of storytelling; context, conflict, creation, the storyteller, the medium, the listener. I do believe that when looking at storytelling within a different space, say marketing vs film – will often yield its own pillar of suspects. So, since we’re fans of generalizing – let’s keep it simple.

The listener (or the audience), is more of a function of marketing (the delivery of the message to the ideal customer, audience, user). 

Although the purpose of a story does account for the audience. A great story doesn’t mold itself to please the audience. Rather, it focuses on delivering the message.

Sure, there may be some value in peeling each one apart. Maybe to help see it from a different angle. Looking closer, they tend to fall into one of the 4 P buckets.

“Marketing is no longer about the stuff that you make, but about the stories you tell.”

~ Seth Godin

Storytelling within the branding context is for a different time. A different story. 

So what does this mean for menu engineering? Might be a stretch. But I think there’s some application.

Conditioning The Customer Journey

I know, it’s not menu-engineering per se. However, I do believe it serves a vital role in pre-conditioning a restaurant-goer’s journey from awareness to the moment they’re in your restaurant, with the menu in hand. And choices. Hopefully, lots of good choices.

Let’s call it menu-priming.

So that begins to bring up a few questions. Which item do you want to stand out the most? Whether it’s the seasonal produce needing consumption at its peak, catch of the morning, or the highest profit item, a local favorite, top rated, so on and so forth.

“If something is top of mind, it’s much more likely to be tip of tongue.”

~ Jonah Berger

Decide. And that is your goal. Now outline a compelling narrative (per the handy storytelling principles):

  • Where ingredients are sources (people, place)
  • A unique preparation method (the plot)
  • An unusually clever (and tasteful) ingredient pairing approach (the plot, characters)
  • (also related to previous comment), the flavor palette (the plot, the characters, maybe purpose)
  • Inspiration (the origin story) behind the dish (purpose, plot)
  • Human-centered attributes; reviews, feedback, accolades (purpose, people)

“By definition, remarkable things get remarked upon.”

~ Seth Godin

And then, create a compelling story. Toss it into your marketing engine. And communicate through the restaurant’s public channels. Email, social, digital, in-store. And measure. Track whether or not there’s a noticeable purchase uptick following the item communication. Celebrate, adjust, and do it again.

Remember the Gambling Number 55 scene from the 2015 movie Focus starring Will Smith and Margot Robbie?

That’s priming. How did they do it? Making sure suggestions were everywhere.

Fact or fiction? Ethical or not? That’s for another story.

“Nobody counts the number of ads you run; they just remember the impression you make.”

~ Bill Bernbach

Quick and Easy Takeaways

  • Think of your social media promotion as a campaign. Don’t post random photos throughout the day of everything and anything without a context. Try focusing on one item. Your first communication may focus on the source of the ingredients, with a beautifully-shot photo of the plated entree surrounded by ingredients and spices. Your next communication may focus on the taste and flavor. Then feedback from your staff or customers. The multi-focus communication can span a single day leading up to lunch or dinner, or across multiple days.
  • For communicating the ingredients, try showing what goes into an entree, arranged on a table or a cutting board – before they get chopped up and combined. Sort of a Mise en Place (French pronunciation: ​[mi zɑ̃ ˈplas] meaning everything in its place, gather)
  • Along similar lines, do the same with spices and herbs used to add flavor! Close-up shots showing the extra that goes into the entree. Again, focusing on a single entree.
  • Any part of the process can be made into a chapter of a story; sourcing ingredients from the local market, preparing the ingredients, final plating, consuming and feedback.

Here’s to great food and even better company!

~ Andre Ivanchuk


Keywords -
Published - January 25, 2022

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