Given the following examples from two menus, you can easily tell which one is from a pricey restaurant and which one is from a diner:
- Montauk Wild Striped Bass Roasted and Lightly Smoked
- Catskill Smoked Salmon Egg Sandwich
- Market Berries – Bowl or Cup
- Farming Turtles Greens
- Congee of Baby Shrimp
- Eberle Farms Roasted Chicken
- A dozen crispy, golden brown shrimp. Served with seasoned fries and cocktail.
- Crispy Chicken Fingers: Crispy and golden brown on the outside, tender and juicy inside. Served with Honey Mustard dressing and seasoned fries.
- All-natural chicken served with cheddar mac & cheese and a side of fresh tomato & mozzarella salad.
- 100% fresh, perfectly seasoned choice sirloin, fire-grilled and miso-glazed. Served sizzling over a bed of fresh spinach, roasted yellow squash, grilled balsamic-glazed onions and roasted cremini mushrooms. Paired with fresh tomato & mozzarella salad.
Where are we going? To how menus use linguistics to demonstrate restaurant competition.
Using data from 6500 menus with 650,000 dishes, Stanford linguist Dan Jurafsky and his colleagues identified the word clues that convey some restaurant economics.
Expensive restaurants tend to focus on the chef and the origin of their food. On the menu, they refer to specific farms, ranches, and farmers markets. Saying less, their adjectives come from different languages. And they also offer us fewer menu items from which to choose.
By contrast, cheaper restaurants say a lot and focus on us. Their menus use empty adjectives like delicious, tasty, and terrific because a more specific description might not be mouth-watering. They say that we can get our eggs “any way we like ’em” or decide among shrimp, chicken or beef for our entree. Called “status anxiety,” they want to be sure we know their steak is fresh, their chicken is natural, their shrimp is crispy and their whipped cream is real.
Suffixes even can have price significance. It is likely that crisp bacon will have a higher price than crispy bacon. You will pay more for roast chicken than roasted chicken.
Our Bottom Line and Monopolistic Competition
Restaurants compete in monopolistically competitive markets. On the competitive side, there are many firms and relatively easy entry and exit. However, these firms have something unique that gives them some monopoly power over their customers. The market in which pricier establishments compete has its menu “norms” while cheaper restaurants have theirs. For both, though, the menu facilitates competition.