Plot Twist! It’s What’s For Dinner
Science says restaurants should serve more of the unexpected. So do we...
These days, ‘surprise and delight’ is a tactic belonging to most brand’s marketing strategies. While success varies, the concept remains a sound and self explanatory one: enhance customer engagement with unexpected rewards.
And yet, as surprising and delightful as dining can be, it’s not exactly a tactic baked into most restaurant programming. I get it, a restaurant is a busy place. This was all on my mind a few Saturdays ago when I took my mother to one of our favorite restaurants for her 82nd birthday.
Some backstory…the restaurant occupies the ground floor of a country inn located in one of Vermont’s most quintessentially Vermont-y towns. Mom and I hadn’t been back to the place since my father died three years ago. Perhaps we’d been avoiding the restaurant — how could it compare without Dad there, the guy who gabbed with every waiter and waitress and bartender, all of whom knew him by name? Or maybe Mom and I had been avoiding it because in our absence the restaurant had changed ownership. Whatever the case, my fears were unwarranted. Familiar sights assuaged us as soon as we arrived, from the clubby yet low-key atmosphere in the wood-paneled tavern to Mom’s favorite turkey croquettes still gracing the menu.
What I wasn’t expecting—as we followed the hostess toward a two-top by the left of the fireplace—was for another member of the relatively new staff to stop us and hand me an envelope.
“I hear it’s someone’s birthday,” the woman said, smiling as she pressed the envelope into my hand. Fear, oddly enough, struck me again, or at the very least a feeling of deflation. I’d driven up to Vermont from Manhattan that morning, a five-hour slog in bad weather, dropped my wife and two sons off at my in-laws along the way, all so that I—Mom’s only child—could treat her to a birthday dinner. Meaning the last thing I wanted was for some benevolent family friend to steal my thunder by picking up the check.
This, it turned out, was yet another unwarranted fear. While Mom’s friend had supplied us with a generous gift certificate, the amount would cover a nice bottle of wine rather than the whole meal. I could still slap down my credit card with great magnanimity at the end of the night and thus be the recipient of all those endorphins gift-giving can trigger.
I think it was the element of surprise—of being handed that envelope out of the blue—that shifted the course of our evening, which until that point we’d tacitly agreed would follow the same trajectory it always did when we dined there.
But here’s another thing I wasn’t expecting: the freebie caused me to spend more money than I’d anticipated. Mom and I ordered several appetizers so that we could sample this and that, plate-sharing being a rarity for us, as well as a round of cocktails before we selected a wine, and when dessert was suggested we uncharacteristically opted for that, too. Perhaps subconsciously I’d tallied how much the gift certificate had saved me, and so decided to splurge on other menu items…but it didn’t feel like that was the case. Rather, I think it was the element of surprise—of being handed that envelope out of the blue—that shifted the course of our evening, which until that point we’d tacitly agreed would follow the same trajectory it always did when we dined there (in, I suppose, a bid to relive the past; one in which my father was still around).
In short, I’d been surprised and delighted, and this had a ripple effect through our entire meal.
The Science of Surprise
In her book, "Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected,” co-author Tania Luna argues that surprise brings vitality to our lives — quite literally, with studies showing that the unexpected can intensify our emotions by as much as 400 percent. Not only can a good surprise trigger dopamine, but it can also recalibrate whatever situation we find ourselves in, causing us to shift perspective and engage deeper with the slightly new experience at hand. Why else would we all love the perfectly timed plot twist? Luna breaks her theory down into four phases:
Freeze—a surprise can literally cause humans to freeze for 1/25th of a second.
Find—in the aftermath of being so caught off guard, our curiosity is stoked as we need to make sense of what just happened.
Shift—based on these findings, our perspective will often shift about a person, place, or event.
Share—this new perspective, or deepening of our understanding of something, will often cause us to share these findings with others.
“It’s kind of like a cognitive statistics game,” Luna told WNYC. “The more you expect it, the less you’re surprised. The less you expect something, the more you’re surprised.”
In the case of my mother’s birthday meal, we were surprised by the stranger handing us the envelope, which made us suddenly curious as to what else might be on the menu, thus shifting our conversation from the nostalgia and melancholia of missing my father to this seemingly new culinary experience we’d both decided to opt in for, and share…well, what am I doing right now? (BTW, the mushroom cheddar tart banged — do order it).
A Princeton Neuroscience Institute study found similar evidence to that of Luna. Inspired by the unhinged celebrations of soccer fans—whose sport is marked by its sparse, and thus unpredictable, scoring—researchers scanned the brain activity of participants while they watched the final five minutes of nine (in the study’s case) NCAA basketball games.
“When surprises were positive for each subject’s preferred team, areas associated with rewards processing such as ventral tegmental area (VTA) and nucleus accumbens were activated. This shows that surprise activated regions associated with a positive affective feeling, which also show activation for numerous other pleasurable stimuli like music and food. Altogether, these findings indicate that the reward and arousal brain systems work in concert when a large change in the expectations about the environment happens.”
Or, as other studies have found: unpredictability increases anticipation, and anticipation triggers dopamine.
Really, is there anything that more accurately telegraphs our future than a menu?
Restaurants can be notorious for how they engineer diners to spend more money—from elaborate menu descriptions to the absence of dollar signs next to these descriptions to the frivolous extras in the form of breath mints and other needless items one encounters at, say, a Starbucks cash register. But one thing restaurants don’t often do is surprise us with the unexpected. Sure, they delight us, and the best ones can surprise us with their creative dishes or their takes on staple items, but unless we’re talking omakase, we more or less know what we’re getting once we’ve sat down, and certainly once we’ve ordered. Really, is there anything that more accurately telegraphs our future than a menu? It’s like a theater program, a choose your own adventure program perhaps, but once you’ve made your selections you’re essentially locked in, meaning the best a restaurant can do is meet your expectations.
Where’s the room for spontaneity? For switching up the routine with the unexpected? For presenting something a diner doesn’t have the time or foreknowledge to anticipate? The human brain—or most people’s —craves surprises, and this should be no different when it comes to dining. In the case of my recent meal with my mother, it was her friend who surprised us, triggering a new way in which we engaged with an old standby. But the same tactic can be employed by restaurants themselves, especially when it comes to their most loyal customers. Mix up the menu and recalibrate a party’s night out by giving them something extra and unexpected, and you’ll see how much deeper those diners engage.
Blackbird Labs, Inc.
Embracing humanity and sticking to tradition can also generate surprise in hospitality.
I recently had a lunchtime meal in France at a small, traditional Lyonnaise bouchon.
After being seated, we noticed a table of two talking to who I assumed to be the owner-chef of the restaurant. Based on the intensity of the interaction - the way they were leaned in, pencil and paper in hand, and gestures - the conversation appeared to be about serious restaurant matters. I didn't think much of it beyond that.
Five minutes later, the owner walked over and engaged us in the same manner as he did the previous table. He wanted to chat, talk about where we were from, why we found ourselves in Lyon, and to review the "menu du jour" in full, unfettered detail. He went through what was in season, his most prized dishes, and gave recommendations based on our preferences.
Right then, it clicked for me - he was the menu. They didn't just leave you with a piece of paper, lost in translation. A real human, the owner no less, came by to personally discuss the food.
As we enjoyed our lunch, I noticed there were zero turns at lunch service. I surmise that this level of engagement with your fellow diners takes purposeful attention, and the tradeoff means lower table turnover. Hopefully, quality and loyalty makes up for any possible profit deficiencies, but even if not, their humanistic bent towards hospitality sets them apart.
This unexpected, uncommon service shook up my traditional definition of hospitality. Because of that, it was by far one of my most treasured restaurant visits in the country of France.