Bon Appétit! How Foreign Words on the Menu Can Boost Restaurant Sales

A new study sheds light on what happens to the desirability of your menu if you present it in another language.
This dish looks delicious, but does it make a difference if it's called 'escargot' or 'snails?' (Photo: Shakim888/Shutterstock)

Imagine yourself opening a menu at a five-star restaurant, and the first item you came to was “cooked land snail sitting in a bath of garlic, parsley and butter.” Would you order it?

Now, what if that first item actually said “Escargots à la Bourguignonne”?

According to a new study, people tend to forget just how unappetizing some foods really are if they’re presented in a foreign language. And its findings could help boost sales at your restaurant.

Related: Beyond the Plate: Menu Presentation Matters

Eating words

The team, led by Janet Geipel, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Chicago, published their findings in the January 2018 edition of the journal “Nature Sustainability.”

The researchers conducted three separate studies, testing reactions to recycled wastewater, cookies made from mealworms and artificial meat. Participants were native speakers of German, Italian and Dutch who had learned either English or German as a second language. The participants read about the product either in their native tongue or their second language and were then asked if they would be willing to eat or drink it.

Of those who encountered the products in their native tongue, only about 18 percent said they would be willing to try either artificial meat or mealworm cookies. Forty percent ruled out the meat entirely, and almost 55 percent gave an absolute “no” to the cookies. When presented with the products in their second language, however, only 25.8 percent completely ruled out the artificial meat, and 35.5 percent said “never” to the mealworm cookies.


According to Janet Geipel, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Chicago, you can use foreign language to reduce disgust related to certain products. (Photo: Gladskikh Tatiana/Shutterstock)

What does this mean for your menu?

Whenever possible, Geipel says, err on the side of the exotic.

“You can use language to reduce feelings of disgust related to some products that are rejected by the population,” she said. “A native tongue has a higher emotional resonance than a foreign language because it is used more often and in more emotional contexts. By using a foreign language you take away some of the emotionality attached to ‘insects’, and thus help override a barrier that prevents the consumption of insect-based food.”

Related: 15 Menu Tweaks that Can Increase Profits

The power of language

Geipel’s research expands on previous work done by her colleague at UChicago, Professor Boaz Keysar. He’s published studies demonstrating that encountering emotionally charged matters in a foreign language reduces people’s emotional reaction to them.

For instance, Keysar and his team found that people make more deliberate and careful decisions when they’re thinking about them in their non-native language. He said this is because having to think in another language requires more cognitive power. And by having to think it through more thoroughly, you’re more likely to make a rational decision.

So if you’re interested in keeping to a sustainable, environmentally conscious theme in your restaurant, offering menu items like artificial meat or recycled wastewater might be a hard sell to even the most earth-friendly consumers. For those products, Geipel says, it might be appropriate to try the Escargot Rule.

“We need psychology to nudge sustainable consumption,” she said. “And one nudge could be presenting sustainable-but-disgusting products in a foreign language.”

Related: How to Test Your Restaurant Menu

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