It’s easy to bag on Nation’s Restaurant News, the journal of large, food-service-powered restaurant chains, but it is easily the most comprehensive window into the way that tens of millions of Americans actually eat on a daily basis and therefore makes for fascinating reading. Along these lines: NRN recently published a story by consultant Jim Sullivan titled “25 descriptive words that help merchandise the menu.”
As actual advice, it’s more useful in a general sense (i.e., “Think about how you describe your food”) than in a specific sense; it’s difficult to write anything one-size-fits-all about menus. Reverse-engineering the 25 items is relevatory, though, in terms of what we like to eat as a nation, and why.
The numbered terms are Sullivan’s; the commentary that follows is mine.
1. Signature dish
Admittedly useful, but just remember that if you apply it to more than half the menu, it loses some punch and the non-“signature” items really suffer by comparison.
In a culture plagued with obesity, drenched is both a sad reflection of standard practices and a sharp tool in the salesperson’s kit.
See above. Also, presumably it can only be applied to items that are actually thick.
Less a sales technique than an incredibly literal description of a cooking technique.
5. Lightly dusted
Potentially powerful, but a great deal is riding on the particular substance being dusted.
6. Jet Fresh
When I read this, I immediately thought of a high-powered blow-drier propelling a plateful of shrimp across a dining room. Probably meant to suggest that the food is not even vaguely local, but was flown in at great expense, to be reflected on the bill at the end of the meal.
Also an unfortunate, mostly unfashionable euphemism for the developmentally disabled, so it might be wise to tread carefully here.
8. My customers love it
A pitch-perfect approach to selling Americans—if something is best-selling, popular, or loved by many other people, it must be good, despite the piles of evidence that most other people are basically well-meaning idiots.
See above. Run, lemmings, run!
10. Drizzled with
See “Lightly dusted.”
The word so good, it had to be stated twice. Thick. Aw yeah. THICK. “This steak, madame, is thick. I mean, really, really thick. And the potatoes. Thick. And the wine? Thick.”
Really? Seasoned? How about with? Or the? Those are good words to work into a menu as well. Oh, and and.
13. My Favorite
When offered up unprompted, my favorite translates in the savvy diner’s mind to best margins and/or just about to expire.
14. Sold Out
This is actually a terrible descriptor, because it means the customer can’t actually order the dish.
Good for salad, fried chicken, and breakfast cereal; less good for flan, iced tea, or meatballs. Apply with caution.
Basically a lie in this context, yes? How about grand-aunt-made? Also a lie, but a more intriguing, specific lie.
Boy, we’re really pushing crunchy here, aren’t we?
18. Bubbly, melted cheese
Lord knows bubbly, unmelted cheese wouldn’t be as pleasant.
Good upon initial examination, but not actually very versatile. “Madame will, I think, enjoy the lemon and veal parcel; our chef has described it as ‘exceedingly chunky.’ It comes with a side of chunky asparagus served with a beurre blanc made in the tradition of Vichy, which is to say also very chunky. In the meantime, please enjoy your chunky dinner roll.”
Probably best for coffee or pepper.
21. Made Fresh Daily
Actually quite a useful one, assuming it’s true.
22. So fresh it slept in the ocean last night
Eerily evocative of The Godfather.
23. Made Fresh Daily
Probably familiar to those of us who read item number 21. Perhaps the ultimate evidence of the sales expertise of this author is the fact that he has sold to us 22 descriptive terms as 25.
24. Spicy-not hot
What does this even … what?
25. Brand New
In Europe, local specialties are perfected and cherished, presented with pride for centuries to come. In America, we’re just figuring out how to add bacon to ice cream sundaes, and are deeply proud of the transgressive nature of this discovery. We still have a ways to go.
To be fair to Sullivan, if you use all 22 of his descriptors to sum up a single dish, you’re left with quite a convincing line of patter:
“And now I’d like to tell you about one of our brand-new items, homemade and also made fresh daily. It’s one of our special signature dishes, and my customers love it. We start with a thick, seared cod so jet-fresh it slept in the ocean last night and wrap it in crunchy, chunky, seasoned bacon that’s drenched in butter and bubbly, melted cheese and lightly dusted with fresh-ground pepper and drizzled with a spicy-not hot balsamic cardamom dressing. It’s my favorite and very popular, but, unfortunately, it’s sold out.”