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The Secrets Of Secret Menus

Whenever we go to an Italian restaurant, my husband attempts to order the same thing for dessert.

I say “attempts” because his order does not change regardless of what appears (or does not appear) on the restaurant’s menu. He always tries for a tartufo (sometimes spelled tartuffo), an ice cream-based dessert usually covered in a chocolate shell. When tartufo is on the menu, the order is no problem. When it’s not, sometimes he is simply out of luck. But what has surprised me over time is the number of establishments where no tartufo appears in the menu but, upon request, one appears at our table.

At first, I was baffled. If a restaurant was willing to sell diners an item, why would it not put that item on the menu?

After a bit of research, I realized that many dining establishments offer these unadvertised items because they realize that their diners like being in on a secret. Many customers see ordering off-menu at a restaurant a brag-worthy goal. Whether a particular favorite of the chef’s or a former dish that has rotated off the official list of offerings, an off-menu meal can make diners feel like they are receiving special treatment. They can enjoy the double psychological thrill of successfully taking a risk and feeling as if the restaurant has done them a favor. Restaurants who are willing and able to meet these requests stand to gain goodwill, loyalty and positive word of mouth. This last is especially important in today’s landscape of ubiquitous online reviews.

When most regular, non-tartufo-obsessed diners think of ordering off-menu, they are arguably more likely to think of doing so at a fast casual chain like Chipotle or Shake Shack, where “secret menus” have become big business. Perhaps the most famous example is In-N-Out Burger, despite the fact that the company insists that it has never kept anything on its menu a secret. The burger chain’s vice president for operations, Carl Van Fleet, told The New York Times in 2002, “We’ve always prepared a burger any way you want. Our customers came up with the names like ‘Animal Style.’” Today, the company has embraced the most common customer creations with its “not-so-secret menu,” available to anyone who cares to look.

Asking for small customizations to fast dining isn’t new, of course. Burger King was encouraging customers to “have it your way” back in the 1970s. But in the age of social media, a lot of chains are following In-N-Out’s lead and embracing the most popular customer creations. For instance, Starbucks does not market directly to children, but by encouraging preteens and teenagers to ask for unofficial creations like cotton candy or butterbeer frappuccinos, and to share their creations with their friends, they have tapped a younger demographic by catering to a desire for individuality. As Gillian Tett noted in a column for the Financial Times, “Judging from my daughters, and debates on the blogosphere and social media, what tweens really love about the secret menu is not just that it feels a little subversive – but that it offers ‘customisation.’”

The power of social media means that sometimes secret menu items are secret even from the hapless employee taking a customer’s order. That’s because secret menus are not really menus in the traditional sense, but rather recipes for custom orders. Sometimes the code word is enough to get you what you want – by this point, it is safe to assume every In-N-Out employee knows how to make something “animal style” – but not always. If you want a churro frappuccino, most baristas won’t mind making you one as long as it isn’t rush hour, but there is no guarantee a particular barista will know how. After all, Starbucks isn’t teaching baristas in Seattle how to make fan favorites from Texas. Websites like #HackTheMenu explicitly tell you how to order secret menu items, and it is nearly always a series of directions, not a name.

Most casual restaurants recognize that accepted menu modifications work best when they are driven by customer demand. The moment you try too hard to be cool, you become deeply uncool; restaurants run the same risk, as Panera Bread found in 2013. Just keeping regular-sounding menu items off the standard menu has advantages in that restaurants don’t have to invest in signs and promotional materials, but it doesn’t capture the fun of making customers feel like savvy insiders.

Ordering off-menu, regardless of the establishment, is an increasingly common and accepted tactic. While restaurants still have the right to turn down these requests, these days they often find it worthwhile to say yes. For the most part, if you ask nicely and are willing to describe what you want, you may be able to get your heart’s desire – whether a discontinued Subway pizza sub, Wendy’s belly-busting “Meat Cube,” a cinnamon roll frappuccino or just a simple tartufo.

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