Secret Menus, Secret Prices & Tribes

This is my first secret blog. Please don’t tell. Maybe this will go viral, because I used the three magic words “please don’t tell”. These words are so effective for spreading Word of Mouth that one of Manhattan’s better “speakeasy” cocktail bars used PDT for its name.

Please Don't TellWas In-N-Out Burger, founded in 1948, the first to understand the power of a secret? I don’t know when the secret menu started, but I do know that Word of Mouth actually existed before the Internet. In fact social networking existed before the Internet. No, really. So did “Animal” Style Burgers.

The Secret Menu trend has grown, and there are non-published items now available, if you know to ask, at Starbucks, Burger King, Fatburger, Subway and many more. And it’s not just about QSR. There’s the ribeye steak at Nobu. In fact a recent article posted at the New York version of listed “secret” items at some of Manhattan’s finer establishments, including David Burke Kitchen and Momofuku.

My good friend and great hotelier Craig Poole used the secret menu approach to build traffic for his new bar which opened smack dab in the middle of the recession when price-consciousness was at its peak. Some people make lemonade if you give them a lemon. Craig will make a lemon soufflé. To pump up his new bar he simply whispered to guests as they checked in that if they said the right word to one of the bartenders there was a phenomenal value awaiting them. He told them the word and what the value would be, and added “please don’t tell”.

How and why do secret menus work? Well, we like to know secrets. Or rather, we like that others don’t know, or don’t “get it”. Which brings me to Seth Godin’s remarkable 2008 book Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us. It’s my opinion that Tribes explains the popularity – and success – of the secret menu phenomenon.

Tribes BookGodin defines a tribe as a group of people connected to each other, and to a leader and to an idea. The “secret” creates loyalty, makes me feel that I belong. Godin said in an interview “…you can’t have insiders unless you have outsiders. All tribes have outsiders. That’s what makes them a tribe.” I’m not comparing an Animal Burger to the change-the-world causes that Godin refers to. But I think the same mechanics are at work. He talks about leadership success founded in action for and with the tribe, not “to” the tribe. A restaurant billboard or poster markets to you, but their secret menu, with its wink and nod, is both for you and with you.

Which brings me to the final point – what is decidedly not “with” or “for” you is “secret prices”. I use this term to refer to the practice of marketing – sometimes even menuing – something without telling the customer the price.

This crass and even counter-productive practice puts the customer in the position of having to ask the price – how does that make your customer feel, do you think? Yet it’s not uncommon in foodservice. Last month my wife and I visited the gorgeous lounge at a major downtown hotel. The drink list had prices listed for beer and wine, but not for the cocktails (this seems to happen with vendor-printed menus). A week later we dined at an upscale branded restaurant in a chain hotel and listened to the server whet our appetites with an detailed description of the night’s special. And, you guessed it, we had to ask the price. This always makes me think that the server is embarrassed about it. Finally, I encountered another online catering menu this month, with no pricing. How hard to you want me to work to get your information for my function. Easier to book with one of your competitors who tell me everything up front.

Secret menus: cool. Secret prices: not.

Final tip. Want to have some fun with your own “secret menu”? Try using a QR Code based promotion, something that would appeal especially to your smartphone customers.

Those are my thoughts, let me know yours.