Saturday, April 7, 2012

Navigating the Restaurant Menu

A restaurant meal should be a treat, not a daily routine, for most people.  Eating out at restaurants several nights a week is a sure recipe for a credit-card debt crises.

I have mentioned several times here that a lot of Americans use restaurants or delivery or take-out as a kitchen.  In dual-income families, spouses are "too tired to cook" so it is "get the door, it's Domino's" several nights a week, or eating fatty, starchy, overpriced food, at T.J. McGillicutty's Steak and Cakery, where "everyone is family doncha' know!" equally as often.

And folks do this, charging $25 to $50 a meal and wonder why (a) they have a creeping credit card debt problem and (b) a creeping weight problem.

Just as putting aside $100 a week would save up a half-million dollars by retirement, spending as much as that, if not more, will cause your debt load to slowly increase over time.   Weight gain and credit card debt don't happen overnight.  It can take years, or decades, even before the damage is noticeable.

One reason people do this, of course, is poor normative cues.   People assume that since "everyone" has an iPhone, Cable TV, a new car, and eats out in restaurants all the time, that this is "normal" and thus not a bad thing or a bad financial decision.

But just because Madison Avenue says "everyone" smokes cigarettes, doesn't mean it is a keen idea, on a personal level.   And the definition of advertising - the source of most poor normative cues - is basically the concept of persuading you to do things that are against your own self-interest.   The goal of advertising is to get you to do things - spend money - that without such persuasion, you would not do logically.

This is hard to break free of.  Normative cues can be so subtle that you may not notice them - they fly under the radar.   And they are staggeringly powerful, as well.  Even something as simple as portion size can trip you up.   The waitress brings you a 1,500 calorie entree and you eat it, without even thinking whether "this is too much food for one meal."

So how do you navigate the hazardous terrain of the restaurant?  It is not easy to do, but I have some suggestions - based largely on normative cues.

1.  Budget for Restaurant Meals:   Yes, cooking at home saves a lot of money.  The $35 spent on a restaurant meal can pay for several meals at home.   But you do want to go out and have fun on occasion.  So just budget for it.  And have fun - don't just refuel.  And log your receipts and compare them to your budget amount and see if you are overspending.

We set up a separate checking/debit card account for our food budget, as well as a very low-limit ($1500) and low interest (6.5%) credit card for food as well.   We log this all in Qickbooks and thus can easily see how much we are spending on food - both groceries and meals.  Not tapping into our main account for food allows us to control the expense somewhat.

For the first time in our lives, we know how much we are spending on food.  That only took 30 years to accomplish.

2.  No Crappy Restaurants:   Most Americans use restaurants like they do filling stations - looking for the most food for the least money.  And this has given rise to large chains of restaurants (as well as bad local restaurants) that shovel potatoes, rice, orange cheese and brown meat at you, for low, low prices.  Well, the prices really aren't that low, are they?  For the price of one bad meal at T.J. McGillicutty's Steak and Cakery you could cook for a family of four for a week.

The food is bland, tasteless and salty - and generally unhealthy for you.  Just avoid these places like the plague.   Are they popular?  Yea, but then again, so is crack and meth.   That don't mean it is good, or good for you.

If you go to a restaurant and the food or service is bad, don't go back.   I don't know how many people I know go to bad restaurants, complain about the food and service, and then keep going back, again and again, as if somehow it would change.

A restaurant should be a special experience, not some bland, repetitive, boring thing, where they serve you food you could have cooked better (and cheaper) at home.  It should be fun.   And if it ain't, don't go there.

3.  Budget for the Night:   As I noted in another posting, restaurant prices seem to be creeping up as of late.  One way to avoid this problem is to budget how much you want to spend, before you go.  (In that earlier posting, I made some suggestions as to how to save on restaurant meals.)  But having a number in mind, before you go, can help you budget the experience.

So figure out a number - based on the type of restaurant - and try to stick with that.  If that means splitting an entree, doing without desert, or not having that drink-before-dinner, then so be it.

And if a restaurant is so expensive you can't afford it, then don't go.   Or don't go very often.

4.  Navigating the Menu:  The menu is a litany of normative cues.   First, it is divided into "Appetizers," "Soups and Salads," "Entrees," and "Desserts".  The implication is, of course, that a complete meal might include all of these items.  It need not.

It is perfectly OK to order an appetizer and a salad, although many appetizers are loaded with salt.  Or just have an appetizer, which in some restaurants, is more than sufficient for an entree.   There is no law saying you have to have four courses of dishes, or order one of each on the menu.

Splitting an entree is another way to save on money - and calories.   But many people feel ashamed to do these things, as they will be perceived as "cheap".  Many act like the waiter is doing them a favor by doing this.  Granted, most restaurants charge a plating fee for splitting an entree.  But that is just an indication that expect people to do this.

So don't act ashamed to ask for an appetizer to be served as an entree.    Or to have a soup and salad or whatever.  You are the customer and you can order what you want to, right?

Pricing is an interesting gimmick.  The most expensive entree is rarely ordered, but put there to put the other entrees in context.   In other words, the lobster tail (market price) and the spaghetti platter are the bookends for the pricing context of the menu.   When the lobster tail is $50 an the spaghetti platter is $10, then paying $17 for the fish or chicken sounds, well, reasonable.   Normative cues - the use of outlier pricing, in this instance, to make other prices have a context.

5.  Specials: One of my favorite restaurants on Rich People's Island next door is a simple place that serves oysters, beer and local shrimp.   If you go there from 4-6 PM, it is "Happy Hour" and oysters are 50 cents apiece.   They usually have a dollar beer special, as well, which is a considerable savings.

But - a funny thing - they do not go out of their way to tell people about these specials.  I was there the other day and watched a couple sit down, order bottled beer and entrees, oblivious to the fact that oysters were 50 cents and drafts were a dollar.  They spend nine dollars on beer and thirty dollars on entrees, whereas I spend three dollars on beer and six dollars on oysters.

Specials, as I noted before, can sometimes be pricey or are used to clean out the walk-in of old food.   You have to be careful.   And often the extravagant peanut-crusted Mahi-Mahi is never described with the price.  So be sure to ask the price.

But daily specials, happy hours, early bird specials (yea, old people love 'em - now you know why) are great ways to save money.

Even the fancy Italian place I went to in Atlanta the other day (where the bill was in the hundreds of dollars) had a "Prix Fixe" menu, which offered four courses and a glass of wine for a reasonable fixed price.  Why not?

6.  Booze:  Liquor is the big money-maker for most restaurants, and cocktails are the most profitable for them.   Rather than have a "drink before dinner" at the restaurant, make a cocktail at home.   This can shave $10 to $15 off your restaurant bill, and you will arrive at the place more relaxed.

With dinner?  Wine.  Or beer, if it is that sort of place.   But cocktails and a meal is well, like smoking while you eat.   A friend of mine has a martini with his meal and I don't get it.   A martini needs to be drank fairly quickly, while cold, not sipped like a glass of wine.   And while it might go good with a steak, a robust red wine would go better.

No, save the cocktails for before dinner.  And serve them with some hor's d'ouevres (drinking on an empty stomach is a bad idea).

The wine list is chock full of normative cues as well - with the pricing directly bracketing your choices.  No one wants to order the "el cheapo" wine, and appear to be flinty to the waiter (who cares what the waiter thinks, by the way?) and some folks will go out of their way to order a bottle they cannot afford, just to be a big shot.

The bottom line is, of course, you should order a bottle you like and you can afford.  And with food, a reasonable table wine is more than appropriate.   In fact, esoteric expensive wines might overwhelm the meal, or the meal.

The markup on wine, of course, is scandalous.  A simple $10 bottle of wine that you might buy at a grocery store is often sold for $35 at a restaurant, for reasons I cannot fathom.   Like I said, booze is a huge profit area for restaurants - and one area you can really save money.

7.  Desserts:  Desserts sound inexpensive, but they are a huge profit area as well.   Take a $10 pie, cut it into eight pieces, and sell each piece for $10.   Not a bad deal.

I shy away from desserts for several reasons.  First, of course, is the cost.  Second, is the calorie count.  Third, many are less-than-memorable.  A lot of restaurants buy desserts "off the shelf" from an outside company or bakery.  Thus, while they are not bad, they are not particularly special, either.

A restaurant that makes its own pies or cakes, well, that is something else entirely.   And it is always fun to have someone make Bananas Foster right at your table.  If that is what the restaurant is known for, then go for it!  Eating out should be fun, right?  That is the point here - not just to refuel.

But a piece of frost-bitten cheesecake that is indifferently served and plated, and tastes like the carton it came in?  I'll pass on that.

* * * 

I go to a restaurant to have an experience I can't have at home.   The local oyster bar shucks them fresh, which is something I'm not prepared to do (and at 50 cents a shot, not a bad bargain).

Similarly, ethnic restaurants are fun to go to, if you can't make a spicy Vindaloo at home.

And of course, there are the types of places you go, not necessarily for the food, but to be with friends and hang out and have fun.

But what I see in middle-class America is just the opposite.   People literally line up at these nasty chain places, which are so LOUD inside you can't hear yourself think.   They are run like factories, and the food is bland, salty, and buttery.   The food is forgettable (until about 2AM when the salt wakes you up and your tongue is the size of a football) and the atmosphere is ersatz.

But people go - again and again.  And they line up to get in.  Why is this?  Beats me.  The plebes are idiots, and I long ago gave up on why people buy Chevy Impalas and think they are great cars, or drink light beer and claim it tastes "good".  Maybe that is "elitist" but frankly, are any of those folks really happy - at all?

Trying to be like everyone else - and following the normative cues of our society, particularly as sick as it is today - is the one sure recipe for disaster that I know of.   Being yourself, being an individual, for better or worse, is a far better approach, I think.