The Psychology of the Salad Bar

Sometimes you need to protect humans from themselves. Although my passion is creating platforms that bet on the creative abilities of the average person (Second Life, Google AdSense, YouTube being the last eight years of my life), I also believe the best products need to occasionally guide people away from their own bad habits or hard-wired inclinations.

Example? The latest, greatest communication method – let’s take Twitter for example – is beloved by early adopters because there’s such a high signal:noise ratio. Well, that’s because you start out connecting to just a handful of friends. But then as you add more and more ties because the platform becomes popular, because the desire to collect friends (especially when this number is visible), because you feel weird turning down connection requests, etc, ends up adding more noise until the system becomes less valuable. Unless the product itself helps you with features such as “mute,” hiding friend counts to remove social pressure, etc.

One of my favorite experiences with this phenomena came outside the world of technology and instead in the restaurant business. When studying for my MBA i used class projects as a way to explore industries where i was curious but unlikely to pursue post-graduation. I’ve always avoided knowing too much about the mechanics of food service on the belief that a first hand look at the workings of a restaurant kitchen might cause me to think twice about eating out. However it was time to conquer my fear and Fresh Choice, the california-based buffet chain, was my opportunity.

Growing up out east I was intimately familiar with Sizzler as the pinnacle of gorge-yourself eating. Fresh Choice seemed to bring a healthier take to the “all you can eat” model and for reasons that escape me, I ended up talking with their VP of Marketing about an independent project. We settled on examining the question of customer loyalty – they were having trouble attracting new customers without discounting, and when they did coupon (which was often), discovered that most of the customers were value-oriented shoppers who failed to bring other guests with them. Quite a conundrum.

A classmate and I set about surveying several hundred customers at three different Fresh Choice locations to better understand their visitation habits. Ultimately we delivered some valuable information on discounting and evangelism strategies to Fresh Choice management, including converting some of our most enthusiastic interviews into a “Kitchen Cupboard” group who could be tapped for ideas ongoing. But the learnings which lived on beyond the research had more to do with human nature than an approach to couponing.

1) The Paradox of Choice
Many people are familiar with the research that shows people can get overwhlemed by too many choices. At Fresh Choice I witnessed a variation on this reaction based on the fact customers had already paid for a meal and wouldn’t abandon completely. Instead they retreated to the familiar, and in doing so, short circuited FC’s attempts to increase visitation. It went something like this:

In order to attract more eaters, FC mgmt added even more ingredients to the salad bar, hoping to make it a better value and more diverse (now with baby corn!). Already confronted by too many choices, customers would shrink back to the meal they knew how to make (usually a standard salad with just a few common ingredients). The end result was a customer who self-reinforced their notion that FC was only about a single dish — whatever they ate the most.

To encourage experimentation we suggested they print rotating paper placements which showed customers how to become a “salad architect,” putting together different ingredients to make, say, a Cobb Salad or Chinese Chicken Salad.

2) We’re All Pigs
You can’t escape the fact we’re hardwired to be gluttons. It comes from the days when meals were fewer and further between. So despite the fact that Fresh Choice was all you could eat, people would feel the need to stack everything they wanted on their plate the first time through, as if there wasn’t any chocolate pudding left after their initial pass.

The result? A heaping mass of food that quickly became unappetizing as marinara sauce mixed with your brownie and caesar dressing saturated the blueberry muffin.

Rather than try to convince people to not behave this way we suggested they offer sectioned plates or tv tray style dishes. This way at least people could keep their food separate, if not properly portioned.

I don’t think FC took either of these suggestions but this project sticks out in my mind as one of the most interesting hands-on research from my classes at Stanford. FC couldn’t compensate me since i was a student so instead i took a bunch of free meal coupons and promptly displayed the behaviors I’d been observing.

[thanks to Auren for motivating me to write this down as part of a discussion at his place a few weeks back]

2 thoughts on “The Psychology of the Salad Bar

  1. I find that the signal:noise ratio is also decreasing on Facebook. My news feed used to always be relevant and interesting, but has now degenerated into app spam and junk from acquaintances that I don’t need to track that closely. I hope this doesn’t also happen to FriendFeed.I had never thought about the paradox of choice as applied to a salad bar before. It’s true that the options are overwhelming and I tend to always make the same thing.

  2. They do not have partitioned adult plates. But the kids plates do have partitions and that works great. The kids stuff stays much better separated and therefore far more appetizing (or, rather, as appetizing as Fresh Choice can muster).

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