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Are Secret Menu's The Secret Sauce To Avid Fans

Posted on by MenuShoppe.com

Your menu plays a huge role in the success of your restaurant. Beyond displaying dining options, your menu serves marketing purposes that range from encouraging repeat purchases to increasing brand recognition. New customers base their perceptions of your restaurant – and the purchases they make – on the way you present their options, which are the heart of the your business model. However, some of your most valuable selections don't belong on the menu at all.

A secret menu could be the secret weapon you need to engage with loyal customers and lure brand new business. Find out why covert cuisine is such an effective marketing tactic, and how you can stir up some off-menu surprises of your own for your favorite foodies.

The Power of Word of Mouth

Eater recently explored the phenomenon of secret fast food menus, including the famous code words for off-menu items at In-N-Out. The burger chain's official menu is small, but its "secret" options give diners more freedom to supersize or modify their orders. After more than six decades of word-of-mouth marketing, custom orders like "animal style" and "4 x 4" burgers are so famous that the restaurant now openly displays their not-so-secret menu online.

But how did this particular menu get so well-known, and what can you do to get people talking about yours? Whether customers are sharing your official menu on social media or telling friends about your secret menu in person, they are participating in word-of-mouth marketing.

The consulting firm McKinsey broke down effective word-of-mouth marketing into three ingredients:

  1. Functional messages: The products or features that inspire consumers to generate buzz (secret options).
  2. Identities of message senders: The consumers who send these messages (anyone who tells others).
  3. Sending environments: The networks through which messages are passed (neighborhoods, workplaces, and other communities whose members discuss your secret menu)


The "senders" (those who learn and talk about your secret menu) are effective if their knowledge of your restaurant is established and trusted. Repeat customers are good representatives, especially if they place the creative orders themselves.

Secret Menus: The Ultimate Shareable Asset

Secret menus are even more "shareable" than deals, images, or any other digital content, but there are a few ways to ensure that this engagement actually happens. A New York Times "Insights" study, The Psychology of Sharing, revealed five core motivations for engaging in word-of-mouth marketing. According to their results, people share content in order to accomplish the following goals:

  • Bring valuable, entertaining content to peers. If consumers think the content will be enjoyable or useful to others, they're more likely to share it.
  • Define themselves. People share content that gives others a better sense of their identity and interests.
  • Connect and grow relationships. Sharing content is one way to keep in touch with others.
  • Feel more involved. Sometimes, sharing content is self-fulfilling because it makes people feel more engaged with the world or specific communities.
  • Support their passions. Shareable content is a good way to support issues that matter.

Insider knowledge about your restaurant will help your customers connect with fellow foodies, and it may even create social opportunities that allow them to bring new people directly to your restaurant.

The Benefits of Secret Menus

Brian Wansink, a former USDA official who founded the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, believes that secret menus are successful because they make people feel more unique and appreciated. In addition to inspiring word-of-mouth marketing, secret menus may help you achieve the following:

Create Your Own Brand Ambassadors

Exclusivity breeds loyalty. When consumers must make an extra effort to learn about, discuss, and order your unlisted menu items, they become more invested in the brand and involved in your marketing efforts.

Spend Less on Marketing Research

If you pay attention to your customers' special orders and encourage your kitchen staff to accommodate them, you don't have to pay a fortune for research and development. Instead, implementing a secret menu will make you more receptive to real-time feedback, which tells you exactly which menu items, ingredients, and preparation methods your customers want.

Inspire More Intense Emotions

Word-of-mouth is the only real way to inform the public about secret menus, but fortunately, exclusivity is an effective way to inspire it. The Keller Fay Group conducts a weekly survey that measures offline word-of-mouth marketing, and their data suggests a connection between intense emotions and affinity for specific brands.

Word-of-mouth and brand differentiation are connected because emotion plays a huge role in determining the information that people choose to pass along. According to the Journal of Marketing Research, when people are excited to have discovered something new, they associate your brand with unique characteristics that make them more likely to share information.

How to Implement a Secret Menu

By nature, secret menus can't really be planned. Each secret option should feel like the natural byproduct of creative customers or innovative servers, who organically and unintentionally began a trend of placing a specific order. If you're determined to differentiate your restaurant with its own secret menu, follow these steps.

Pay Attention

Learn what your customers are ordering. Every time someone requests something off-menu, keep track of it. Quiz your servers and/or cashiers about common orders.

Train Your Employees

When you notice a trend – even if it's one customer who always orders the same sandwich the same way – train your employees to identify this order and know exactly how to make it. Establish a "shorthand" for certain orders among your staff and customers, and a secret menu will soon follow.

Keep it Unspoken

In-N-Out's secret menu is the stuff of restaurant legend, but another restaurant chain is the best example of what not to do. In 2013, Panera Bread announced a new hidden menu of low-carb items with an official press release, complete with polished promotional images.

It goes without saying that a secret menu should be secret. However, Panera's mistake also revealed that secret menus need order names and ingredients that don't look like they belong on the official menu.

What’s On Your Restaurant's Secret Menu?

When secret menus introduce consumers to distinctive and exclusive options, they are effective grassroots marketing tools that give your restaurant a unique advantage. Whether you run a casual dining franchise or own your own upscale bistro, consider adding a secret menu to your arsenal this season.

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