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Jean Chatzky will be covering a variety of different topics in this space every month. Come back next Tuesday for the fourth article in this month’s Dining series. Please leave your dining questions as comments below and she will address several of the questions at the end of the month.
These days, entertaining clients can be a bit of a double-edged sword. Your clients are your bread and butter, after all, but you’re also likely on a tight budget. The upscale restaurants that are traditionally the site of many a business meeting can easily break the bank.
That’s why knowing exactly how a menu is constructed can work to your favor. It’s not often discussed, but there’s a science behind the way a menu is designed, and getting an inside peak at how the process works can shave quite a bit off your bill. I’m no expert in the area – although I do like to cook and eat – so I turned to Gregg Rapp, a menu engineer in Palm Springs, California, for some insider tips.
- Get to know the layout. This is all carefully calculated, says Rapp. “The best items are on the upper right, just like a magazine. If you want to place an ad, you always want to be on the right side, because your eyes go there before they go to the left side. That’s where we put the items we want to sell, or specialty items you can’t get anywhere else.” The least expensive items tend to go on the back of the menu, or the lower left-hand side. If you want to save cash, you’ll focus your attention there.
- Ask for extras. Sometimes, restaurants knock the least expensive items off the menu completely. So they may give you a cocktail list, but not a beer list, or eliminate wines by the glass on the wine list. But that doesn’t mean these options aren’t available – you just have to ask for them. Likewise, specials sometimes get a bad rap for being over-priced, but Rapp says that’s not always the case. “They’re actually usually lower in cost because restaurants can get special items on sale, and then pass that savings on to the customer. It’s always a good idea to find out what the specials are. They also tend to be seasonal, so you’re getting what’s fresh, too.” If you’re worried about the price of a special, and don’t want to ask in front of the table, excuse yourself to the restroom and ask the server privately.
- Go price fixed. Price fixed, or prix fixe, means that you’ll receive a set list of menu options for a set price. In most cases, an appetizer, entrée and dessert will be included in the total cost. Many restaurants have this option, particularly for lunch, and it tends to be a deal – especially if your client is known to order all three courses. “This way, you know what everyone is going to order, and what you’re spending ahead of time,” explains Rapp.
- Meet in the bar. If you set up your meeting in the bar, you can order a bunch of appetizers and share. It will be less formal, but you’ll also be able to host clients at higher-end restaurants this way. “If you’re a small business owner, you can go to the best restaurants in town and have that experience, but go to the bar and order appetizers,” says Rapp. You’ll impress your clients, and save a little cash. Just keep in mind that drinks can add up fast – if you were planning to have a few drinks at your dinner anyway, this makes sense. If you weren’t, you may end up spending more.
- Take the lead. This tip is from me. In most cases, clients will mimic your order, at least as a ballpark. If you order a lot of food, they may be inclined to order more. If you go for the lobster, they’re probably going for the filet mignon. So the reverse is also true: Keep your focus on the mid-priced items, and they’re likely do the same. Just don’t order the least expensive thing on the menu – you want to seem professional, not cheap.
Jean Chatzky, award-winning journalist and best-selling author, is the financial editor for NBC's "Today," a contributing editor for More magazine, and a columnist for The New York Daily News. She is the author of six books, including her newest, Money 911: Your Most Pressing Money Questions Answered, Your Money Emergencies Solved. Check out Jean's blog at JeanChatzky.com. You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
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