Menu fonts can make restaurant customers think food is healthier

Posted: February 27, 2019

By: Jeanette Settembre – Market Watch
Originally Published: Feb 26, 2019

A new study suggests that people are likely to order more from health-conscious restaurants with handwritten menus

Here’s more proof that people eat with their eyes first.

Diners are more likely to order food from a healthy restaurant where the menu font looks handwritten because they think it signals the food is better for them, a new study from Ohio State University suggests to be published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Business Research.

Researchers polled 185 participants aged 20 to 84, assigning them to four different experiment conditions. In one experiment, subjects were asked to imagine themselves eating at a fictional restaurant called Rilo’s Kitchen, where the menu touted locally-grown, antibiotic-free dishes like Thai shrimp salad and cedar grilled salmon. Half of participants in the group were given a menu with font that appeared to be handwritten (the menu was printed in DJB This is Me font), while the other half was given a menu typed out in standard Helvetica print.
Participants then answered a series of questions about how they perceived the restaurant just by looking at the menu, and how likely they were to engage with it on social media. People who read from the handwritten menu at Rilo’s believed the food was healthier than those who read off the non-handwritten version, and were more likely to post about it on social media.

The next group was assigned to an ordinary, non-seasonal eatery where the menu didn’t emphasize the food’s alleged healthiness. Half of the participants were given handwritten menus while the other half was assigned regular typed out menus. The results were much different. Participants reacted negatively to the handwritten menu, and were less likely to post about it on social platforms like Instagram or Facebook FB, +0.14%
“The handwritten menu had an advantage only with a healthy restaurant,” Stephanie Liu, lead author of the study, told MarketWatch. “It’s because expectations are higher [at healthy restaurants]. It signals more effort, and people felt that it was more endearing than the machine-written type. They feel the restaurant cares about them, and they become more engaged with them.”

Liu explained that in order for the handwritten menu effect to work at a restaurant, it must brand itself as health-focused. So, for example, seeing the handwritten menu item “burger” at a gastropub, or “chicken nuggets” from McDonald’s MCD, -0.25% would not elicit the same effect.

“If the restaurant has healthy dining positioning, the handwritten menu will lead to more favorable consumer responses than the machine-written menu,” Liu noted. “At regular restaurants or with fast food, the type face doesn’t matter as much because you’re not expecting that human touch or extra effort.”
The findings are the latest example of how restaurants use design elements to sway consumers. Fast food restaurants are known to display photos of salads and bottled water on their menus. This creates what’s called a “health halo” and leads customers to believe that all of the food on the menu — including the burgers and fries — are healthier than they actually are, research has shown. The color of the walls, lighting and music choices can also influence how much customers eat.

At some seasonal eateries, chefs and restaurateurs put as much thought into their menu font and description as they do the food. Take farm-to-table restaurant Halifax in Hoboken, New Jersey, which boasts locally-sourced dishes like maple-smoked wild salmon, rainbow trout, and Atlantic blue cod. Chef Seadon Shouse wants customers to get a taste of the simplicity of his ingredients before they even take a bite. “I feel a clean font helps make people think the food is more clean than maybe a scribe or italicized font,” he said. To achieve that, he opts for a neatly typed print called “Futura TOT.”

Celebrity chef David Burke, of David Burke Tavern, an American seafood and steakhouse eatery in Manhattan, has a similar mindset when it comes to conceiving his menus. “The font used on menus should be straight-forward, san serif font, not serif italic or script. Those are harder to read. To highlight healthier dishes, I think using a more delicate font and a bit of color helps to drive home this point. I avoid using script,” he said. One important point: he avoids over-the-top typefaces because they can be off-putting to customers. And diners will skip right over a dish if they can’t read it, he added.