When Restaurant Customers Ask to be “Surprised”

There was a time I conducted a series of experiments inside restaurants. There may be a few restaurants aware of using psychological techniques in designing menus to influence customers to order more, or the higher priced item, or the one that gives better margins.  This thinking I assume, would have been explained to the wait staff with corresponding training on how to respond or how to do suggestion selling. I wondered how they would react then if I simply ignored their menu and the possible influences on what to order such as  elaborate descriptions, psychological messaging, price anchoring among others.  I also disregarded any of their priming efforts such as lighting, use of scents or music and relied solely on the capabilities of their order takers, when dealing with customers such as myself to… surprise me with any dish in their menu that they feel I would be happy or satisfied with.  Of course I had to assure them I am also  absolving them of any responsibility in case I may not like the food.  This was liberating to me as well as I did not want to spend too much time deciding what to eat and therefore just enjoy the conversations with my companions the whole time. 

The practice did not come without any risk because over half of the time, the “surprise me” directive usually stunned order takers – perhaps because it was not part of their training scripts, or maybe because they have no confidence in their own abilities to make recommendations.  In fact, a few made us wait because they thought I was joking. During these visits, I would often be with one or more people, usually a friend, or an existing client I am comfortable with to explain the instant “collaboration” with order takers. Together, we relinquished control in exchange to be surprised, adding a new experience dimension expecting the unexpected and maybe, even the unusual, without consequences for the restaurant. 

Let me share some selected experiences on how several order takers in different restaurants accomplished the “surprise me” challenge. 

Restaurant no. 1 was an upscale Japanese restaurant  in Ortigas. The order taker was an intern, judging from her name tag. She was very articulate and confident, asked me if I had a budget in mind, when I said none, she served my friend Kerwin and I soup, then salad, then main course 1, main course 2, followed by dessert and coffee. We were happy. I then asked her the basis of her choice. She shared it was the best the restaurant had to offer. We were happy, especially our tummies. 

Restaurant no. 2 was a Filipino restaurant in the scout area of Quezon City. The order taker was quite jolly. He served my client Jackie and I many comfort foods for lunch that can last up to dinner. When asked about how he had chosen, he shared that these were his favorite. He had so many. 

Restaurant no. 3 was an Australian franchised restaurant near Eastwood area, part of a group of known restaurants. I treated some 6 or 7 distributors of Waters Philippines then. When asked the basis of her choice, she shared that the menu sequence was based on different taste types – salty, then sweet, then savory, then spicy, etc. We were extremely delighted to have a taste festival! 

Restaurant no. 4 was a cafe in Eastwood. They used to offer an innovative “pay what you want” pricing scheme. So I gave them a P1,000 bill and told them to serve me what they want and change me what they want. This got them confused. While my brewed coffee arrived promptly, the change took a good twenty minutes as the cashier decided to consult with her colleagues. She came back with a P800 change. When asked why that amount, she told me it was the highest price people paid for a cup of brewed coffee. She followed the norm! 

If you are the restaurant owner, or a recruiter, who among the four would be your top hiring preference? Who would be next? Who would be last?

For me, I would choose server number three as my first choice. She wanted us to experience different food flavors, and gave us the opportunity to taste several of their dishes, a more customer focused approach. Server number one will be my close second choice.  She had the presence of mind to ask me for a price range or a budget, and shared their best dish with me. Having two main courses not only increased the total bill but also allowed us to sample another type of food. Server number two would be the last I will hire. He shared all his favorites, but over ordered without anything special that surprised us. As for the cafe, while they were very fair, they could have considered not giving any change for the P1,000, with a written note: “Thank you for helping us give free coffee for the needy” and start a “suspended coffee” advocacy, creating a movement where customers pay extra cups of coffee for strangers who are unable to pay. Who knows, it may even lead other restaurants to launch “suspended meal”? 

But they were all much better than those who left us hungry and kept us waiting without placing any food orders for us, forgetting that their role is to pay attention to their guests and be aware of their needs so their guests can leave satisfied to return again and again.  Or if unsure, they can always ask.

Please share with me your version of Josiah’s Experiments and I would be glad to learn from you. 


P.S. I brought mom for lunch in Podium and paid without asking for her senior citizen discount. The manager was very thankful. If you can afford it, and can help in the post pandemic recovery effort of restaurants, may I recommend you do not use your senior citizen privilege temporarily in the next six months. Kindly consider. Thank you. 

Josiah Go is Chairman and Chief Innovation Strategist of Mansmith and Fielders Inc. The 2nd Mansmith Innovation Summit and Awards on April 26-27, 2022 is free though pre registration is required in www.mansmithinnovation.com. Bring your entire team. 

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Josiah Go features the movers and shakers of the business world and writes about marketing, strategy, innovation, execution and entrepreneurship


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