The secret behind the secret menu, and why it means big buzz for restaurants

The Islamic Thai noodle dish has been a top-selling dish at Salad King in Toronto for 30 years, and it’s not even on the menu.

“To this day, we still see customers coming in and out, ‘Oh, I heard about the secret menu,'” Salad King owner Alan Liu said.

The popular dish got its start in the early days of the restaurant, when Liu’s parents made a noodle curry and decided to make it a special dish. 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.

Alan Liu stands outside the Salad King restaurant in Toronto. (Angelina King/CBC)

“People enjoy the fun of being aware of the secret menu item. So it’s really not that complicated, it’s fun, people enjoy it and it always sells well,” said Liu.

Off-menu items, or secret menu items, have become a popular trend among restaurants, with the hype further fueled by social media influencers.

Create weight

Matthew Philp, assistant professor of marketing at Toronto Metropolitan University’s Ted Rogers School of Business Management, says it’s easy to see why people love him.

“Here’s that secret menu item. Here’s that special thing that only I know about – or that not many people know about. And so it makes you feel kind of in the know; you feel good about yourself for knowing these things “, Philp said.

But it’s not just about being aware. Philp said the even bigger benefit is the ability to share the secret with friends, which is where social media and influencers come in.

Matthew Philp is Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Ted Rogers School of Business Management at Toronto Metropolitan University. (Submitted by Matthew Philp)

“It gives weight,” Philp said.

“If you can create a customer experience that makes them feel exclusive, they’re more likely to share it. So it spreads. [by] word of mouth, and word of mouth is very influential in consumer decision-making – much more influential than a typical advertisement.”

Butterbeer at Starbucks

Scroll down to Sabrina Tam from Montreal, who used secret menu items to boost her TikTok account to hundreds of thousands of followers and millions of likes. His reviews of secret menu items are the most popular videos on his account, helping him land restaurant deals.

She says she can make up to $15,000 a month working with restaurants, reviewing new items, but she says it’s the fast food chains that can make a lot of money out of it.

“At the end of the day, it brings them sales and creates buzz around them, 100%,” Tam said.

Tam started these reviews as something to do at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when her morning routine included a trip through Starbucks’ drive-thru. She decided to take followers on TikTok with her.

“I found like these secret menu recipes on Pinterest or blogs and other people started sharing recipes as well, so I started, like, going to Starbucks and trying them,” Tam said.

Butterbeer Frappuccino is one of the many secret items on the Starbucks menu. (Jennifer Dorozio/CBC)

Now when Tam stops by her local Starbucks, the employees there know who she is and what to expect.

Tam does more than just review secret menus. In one of them recent videos she reviewed a butterbeer drinkbased on the Harry Potter drink, which she had heard a Starbucks in Quebec had created.

She says that in less than 24 hours, the video had over 30,000 views.

“It creates, like, a desire inside of them. It comes and plays with their curiosity and it really makes them want to try,” Tam said.

Apple pie fries

Philp says it’s a fine line for business. These establishments want to lead people into the mystery of the secret menu and drop clues, but blatantly saying you have a secret menu makes it less secretive.

McDonalds held an internal competition where 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 Big Mac French Toasts.

But pulling out your secret menu altogether 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 gray area,” Philp said.

Tells him Thai Islamic noodles will stay off the menu because it’s “more fun” that way, but people can still order them. (Angelina King/CBC)

For the Salad King, Liu said her parents had no intention of creating a buzz around a secret menu item, although it worked out well. It had more to do with Liu’s father and his ability to update the menu.

“My dad didn’t know how to use the print program used to lay out the menu, so he could never figure out how to insert it, 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 top-selling dish from the menu anyway.

“To be honest, if you look at it from an economic perspective, we’ll probably sell more putting it on the menu than leaving it out, but it’s just more fun that way.”

Produced by Danielle Nerman.

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