Restaurants are in business to make money and have developed sophisticated ways to get you to part with your hard earned cash. I am not railing against the restaurant industry or anything because I do like to occasionally indulge in a nice meal. However, I have looked for ways in this economy to maximize my dollars and want to share a few things I have discovered along the way.
SECRET #1: More sizzle than steak
Restaurants understand that many Americans are willing to spend roughly half their food budget dining out so they work every angle employing marketing psychology to help you spend more. Is the environment cozy or upbeat? Quiet or loud? Bright or dim? It isn’t always about the quality of the food but the effectiveness of the atmosphere. Depending on the restaurants aim, these factors are cleverly used to help contribute to your dining experience and the amount you will ultimately spend. Fast-food outlets use a high-stimulation environment to maximize the source of their profit: faster turnover. You know the type, bright lights, bright colors, upbeat music, and plastic seating that do not encourage you to linger. Color schemes are the product of careful research. Yellow, brown and orange all stimulate the appetite, the golden arches are not yellow by choice, or accident, it’s an attempt to make you think of hot, golden fries. Hungry?”
SOLUTION: Make it yourself at home.
This may cause you to shudder if you do not consider yourself a good cook. However, making food at home can save you up to 75% of what a comparable meal would cost you in a restaurant. Remember, when you factor in the cost of the entrée itself, drinks, tip, and transportation, you quickly realize the true dining costs. There are many sources that show you how to make restaurant-quality food. “Secret Restaurant Recipe” books offer copycat restaurant recipes that offer you recreations of some of your favorite dishes that you can make at home for a fraction of what it would cost in the restaurant.
SECRET #2: Restaurant markups are high
It’s no secret that restaurants have big markups on certain items. At a fine-dining restaurant, the average cost of food is 38 to 42% of the menu price. In other words, most restaurants mark up their food roughly 60%. Even menus are cleverly disguised profit warriors. Profitable items are listed first so they are the first thing your eye sees. Low margin items are buried in the middle. Pasta, for example, which costs just pennies per serving to procure, prepare, and serve is then dressed up with inexpensive condiments, sauce or bits of meat and sold for $25 a dish or more. Restaurants also rely on savvy pricing to create the perception of value. Putting a chicken dish on the menu for $21 will make a $15 pasta dish seem like a bargain. Add on a coffee, tea, or sodas and you are giving the restaurants a huge margin of profit per serving. Stick with water to drink and save a bundle. Kinda makes you want to order the item in the middle of the page doesn’t it? While we cannot control what a restaurant markup percentage will be, we can control what we order and whether we even go.
SOLUTION: Create a weekly home meal calendar.
Your father might have been heard bellowing “Failure to Plan is like planning to fail!” One of the best tips I have ever received is to create a meal calendar for each night of the week. Use a list to shop for the food you will need to prepare these dishes. This not only reduces your temptation to pick up fast food on the way home (paying a premium for marginal food), but also lowers the anxiety of the question, “What are we having for dinner tonight?” This simple trick will lower your grocery bill, allow you to CHOOSE when you will eat out thus reducing your overall food bill. It is an amazing thing!
SECRET #3: It HAS to taste good – even when it SOUNDS healthy!
Little heart icons or check marks that say something like “Heart Healthy!” makes people feel better about their choices. However, restaurants load even healthy choices with butter and other calorie-heavy add-ons to make it TASTE good. On average, restaurant meals contain 1,000 – 1,500 calories, which is roughly two-thirds of the daily USDA recommended caloric intake. A separate study suggests that women who eat out five times a week consume an average of 290 additional calories per day (1,450/week). Not good for the waistline or for the heart! Most Americans assume that fast food is the worst offender but did you know that similar items at many casual sit-down restaurants can be even more caloric? The classic burger can contain a whopping 1,013 calories and 71 grams of fat. By comparison, the McDonald’s Big Mac, with its 540 calories and 29 grams of fat, seems downright diet-worthy.
SOLUTION: Look for the Healthy options and hold the butter!
You don’t have to accept that just because it says “Heart Healthy” that it must be good for you. True, it may be slightly better than the regular version but eater beware! Ask your server about options on the dish and try to order as much on the side as possible to control the servings and portions yourself!
SECRET # 4. Swine Flu or E. Coli Anyone?
Remember the 2006 E. coli outbreak that started at a New Jersey Taco Bell and sickened more than 60 people? It was traced to green onions. Food-borne illness isn’t the only cause for concern. In a separate incident, 373 people in Indianapolis got sick after eating at a popular Italian chain where three employees tested positive for the highly contagious norovirus.
SOLUTION: Protect yourself.
Wash your hands!!! Studies indicate that over 90% of cross-contamination illnesses can be wiped out if you thoroughly wash your hands prior to eating, serving, or preparing food. Check inspection results, which are often posted online by local departments of public health. Or just visit the restroom; it tells you everything you need to know about a restaurant! Eating at home can significantly reduce risks.
SECRET # 5. Mondays are not just bad at work…
Mondays may draw less of a crowd but you may wind up being served the weekend’s leftovers. Distributors typically take Sunday off and make their last deliveries Saturday morning. This means that by Monday any food not used over the weekend is at least a few days old and it will be served before the identical ingredients arrive in Monday’s delivery.
SOLUTION: Ignore your instincts and look for a crowd.
“If you are open 24/7 and busy all the time, your ingredients are fresh all the time.”" says New York-based chef Lucia Calvete.
So why pay big bucks at a restaurant when you can eat just as well at home for about 1/3 the cost? It may not be as glamorous if you make it yourself but you will save a ton of money and you may even find that cooking suits you. You never know unless you try! I hope that you can see that eating in a restaurant can come with hefty hidden costs and consequences that can be mitigated with planning and know-how. As I said before, I’m not suggesting that you never eat out since that would make me the world’s biggest hypocrite. What I am saying is that we need to realize how expensive it is to eat out, try to limit out restaurant trips to a reasonable level and explore different options to make some of your most enjoyed and memorable restaurant dishes at home.