A Denny's ad found it's way into my email inbox recently, and it got me thinking about some of the classic scams in the restaurant industry. It's a poorly kept secret that bars give away free salty snacks like peanuts and pretzels to encourage patrons to order more drinks. The pictures on restaurant menus take full advantage of the zoom functionality on cameras and make every steak, every burger, every entree look like a mountain of food even when those dishes are often closer in size to a toddler's butt cheek. And any time a restaurant offers any kind of all-you-can-eat meal, they use the oldest trick in the buffet playbook and push the salad and dinner rolls to keep people from filling up on the expensive meats.
Some restaurants really delve into the psychology books when they design a menu. One article I read explains how restaurants use tricks like choices of portion size, "Dinner for Two" offers, bundling, selective use of pictures for high-margin items, and location of items on the menu to fool people into spending more for dinner. It sounds like a classic case of over-thinking, but all this analysis must pay off if restaurants devote so much time and attention to the seemingly mundane details of menu design.
Anyway...back to that Denny's email that I mentioned. Here's the message that showed up in my inbox:
I'm not crazy about breakfast food, and I'm even less excited about pancakes. But I'll have to admit, the pictures do look rather appetizing--chocolate, nuts, strawberries, whipped cream, blueberries...not bad at all. Yet this whole "Build Your Own Pancakes" concept is a bad idea of epic proportions. At this point, it would be easy for my to delve into all the reasons that this is a poor meal choice for the simple fact that this offer requires one to eat at Denny's...and believe me, that's a list that could go on for days.
The idea of a customizable meal might appeal to some, but let me warn you: this is nothing more than a well-disguised restaurant scam. I most certainly do not want to go anywhere--let alone Denny's--to build my own pancakes. Perhaps you're familiar with the more common and concise term for "building your own meal": it's called cooking. And you can do it at home at a significant discount to anything you'll find at a restaurant. Best of all, if you "build your own meal" in the comfort of your own home, you won't have to mingle with the unseemly clientele and surly staff at Denny's.
Interestingly, despite the fact that Denny's positions itself as "America's diner," I'm fairly certain that the chain stole the concept for this pancake promo from our neighbors to the south--the Mexicans. You may not have noticed this, but all of the dishes on the menu at a Mexican restaurant are virtually identical to one another. Think about it--you've got cheese, salsa, rice, beans (black or refried), seasoned meat, and a shell or chip of some kind (soft tortilla, taco shell, or a tortilla chip).
If I listed those ingredients and asked you to name the menu item I just described, you could give a seemingly infinite number of correct answers: quesadillas, tacos, enchiladas, burritos, chimichangas, nachos, or a fajitas. Mexican chefs clearly aren't the most creative bunch in the world. But I'm not saying that's a bad thing--quite the opposite, in fact. I love Mexican food, and if you're on to a great concept, I say don't mess with success.
But the last item on that list--the fajita--is a clever little scam that's gone largely unnoticed for centuries. Fajitas are priced the same as everything else on the menu, but think about what you're really getting. It's nothing more than a "Build Your Own Soft Shell Taco." The staff brings out all the ingredients--tortillas, meat, rice, grilled vegetables--and you do all the assembly. What kind of deal is that? When I go out to eat, I want someone else to do all the work for me. At the end of the meal, am I allowed to scale back on the tip because I helped carry the workload? Absolutely not.
This scam has succeeded so consistently and for so long because Mexican restaurants do an excellent job of selling the sizzle, quite literally. No other dish turns heads when it comes out of the kitchen like fajitas do. They're sizzling, steaming, and they're often delivered on their own special tray, with a little container of tortillas. It's a much bigger spectacle than the unveiling of a soft shell taco, that's for sure. When the waiter brings out fajitas, you can hear the collective whisper from the other customers, "I think I'll get that!" But they never continue watching long enough to witness that poor fajita-eater toiling away, assembling their food for the duration of the meal.
It's a brilliant idea, and you can't blame Denny's for trying to Americanize this little trick. But I'm onto them, and I'm no fool. Customizable food may appeal to some, but be warned: "Build Your Own" is just a fancy phrase that's masking its evil synonym, cooking.