cost of living4:55The marketing secrets of secret menus
The Thai Islamic noodle dish has been a top-selling item at Toronto’s Salad King for 30 years, and it’s not even on the menu.
“To this day we still see customers coming and going, ‘Oh I heard about the secret menu,'” said Salad King’s owner Alan Liu.
The popular dish started in the early days of the restaurant when Liu’s parents made a noodle curry and decided to make something special out of it. It was such a popular choice that people kept asking for it, even after it was no longer offered.
Liu says the noodle dish is the second best-selling item.
“People have fun knowing the secret menu item. So it’s really no more complicated than that, it’s fun, people enjoy it, and it’s still selling well,” Liu said.
Off-menu or secret menu dishes have become a popular trend among restaurants, adding to the hype Influencers on social media.
Matthew Philp, an assistant professor of marketing at Toronto Metropolitan University’s Ted Rogers School of Business Management, says it’s easy to see why people love it.
“Here is this secret menu item. Here’s this special thing that only I know about – or not many people know about. And that makes you feel like you know a little bit; you feel good knowing these things,” Philp said.
But it’s not just about knowing. Philp said the even greater blessing is being able to share the secret with friends, which is where social media and influencers come into play.
“There’s some clout,” Philp said.
“If you can create a consumer experience that makes them feel exclusive, they’re more likely to share it. Then it just spreads [by] Word of mouth, and word of mouth has a huge impact on consumer decision-making — far more influential than a typical advertisement.”
Butterbeer at Starbucks
Scroll down to Montreal native Sabrina Tam, who used secret menu items to grow her TikTok account to hundreds of thousands of followers and millions of likes. Her secret menu item ratings are the most popular videos on her account, and that helps her sign deals with restaurants.
She says she can make up to $15,000 a month working with restaurants and reviewing new items, but she says it’s the fast-food chains that can make the big bucks.
“At the end of the day, it’s bringing them revenue and 100 percent excitement,” Tam said.
Tam began these reviews as something to do at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic when her morning routine included a drive through Starbucks. She decided to take followers on TikTok with her.
“I found secret menu recipes like this on Pinterest or blogs and other people started sharing recipes too, so I started going to Starbucks and trying them out,” Tam said.
Now, when Tam stops by her local Starbucks, the employees there know who she is and what to expect.
Tam does more than secret menu meetings. In one of hers In the last few videos, she reviewed a butterbeer drinkbased on the Harry Potter drink that she had heard had created a Starbucks in Quebec.
She says the video had more than 30,000 views in less than 24 hours.
“It kind of creates a desire in them. It comes and plays with their curiosity and it really makes you want to try it,” said Tam.
Apple pie fries
Philip says it’s a fine line for businesses to walk. These establishments want to let people in on the mystery of the secret menu and give clues, but if you openly say you have a secret menu, it’s not that secret.
McDonald’s ran an internal competition in which it asked its employees to submit their nominees for the fast-food chain’s secret menu. Some of the more unique ideas included apple pie fries or French toast Big Mac buns.
But completely revealing your secret menu isn’t the way to go, says Philp.
“It’s not like a binary thing to tell consumers about it or not. There’s a certain gray area,” Philp said.
For the salad king, Liu said it wasn’t his parents’ intention to cause a stir over a secret menu item, although it worked well. It had more to do with Liu’s father and his ability to update the menu.
“My father didn’t know how to operate the printing program that creates the menu, so he never figured out how to slide it in, and that’s the honest reason why it’s not on the menu,” Liu said.
Now Liu is able to update the menu but says they removed the best-selling dish from the menu anyway.
“To be honest, if you look at it from an economic point of view, we’ll probably sell more if we put it on the menu than if we leave it out, but it’s just more fun that way.”
Produced by Danielle Nerman.