Cocktail Menu Development And The Plague Of Over Choice


Have you ever asked your server or bartender to come back in a few minutes to take your order because you couldn’t make up your mind? You had your mind on 2-4 items but maybe they were too similar and you were worried about making the wrong choice and not being completely happy? Maybe you haven’t even made it through the menu yet, despite spending ample time looking through it. It turns out this cognitive process has less to do with you and everything to do with something called over choice or choice overload.

Restaurants trying to provide their guests with options to accommodate everyone tends to more times than not, induce fear of choosing the wrong item, costing their staff time and making the guest feel an uncomfortable pressure. This isn’t in the best interest for anyone involved. The longer it takes a guest to order the longer your turnaround on a table will be, disallowing you to maximize the number of customers you can have in a day and preventing your staff from making more tips than they otherwise could.

bar cocktail menuLet’s investigate some of these choice overload causations and the remedies to improve your menu selection and your guests experience.

Having access to too many choices actually results in making decisions more difficult and less satisfying. In fact, if too many options are presented, people might even avoid making a decision altogether. As a bartender or server we’ve all been there all to often, a guest that isn’t too sure what they want and would like you to come back in a few minutes, when you return they still are not sure and they feel kind of bad because they realize they are holding you up and perhaps the entire table’s order. We want our guests to be relaxed and enjoying themselves and our products, not having the psychological stress and worry about ordering something they aren’t sure of.

A growing body of experimental literature suggests that human choices are enormously conditioned by menu design. In principle, consumers are better off whenever their options set is expanded, but too many options can induce a consumer to be highly prone to customary options (status quo bias) or default options (default bias), even when superior alternatives are available.

If you give people more options to choose from, it takes them longer to make a choice, and that feels burdensome or frustrating. Your guests are there for a nice time, perhaps to escape the busyness and thinking of their normal grind. Handing them a menu that burdens them with too many choices is counter to your objective, a great experience.

The Problem

“Most typically, decision makers regard flexibility as a highly desirable feature and therefore tend to appreciate menus including several distinct options: to that extent, the diversity of available alternatives is a key requirement for menus. On the other hand, several works in the behavioral and experimental economics literature suggest that the human ability to manage a diversity of options is definitely bounded. Indeed, in the face of abundant options, the observed behavior of decision makers seem to disconfirm the common assumption that the more choices they have, the better off they are. On the contrary, as agents face a great variety of plans or goods (too much choice), they tend to regard as a burden the task of identifying an optimal choice. In fact, there is growing evidence that people can easily experience difficulties in managing complex choices. Under those circumstances, decision makers experience conflict and tend to defer decisions and to search for new alternatives, choose the default option or simply opt not to choose [1,2,3].guest reading drink menu

Additionally, just as Miller [4] might have predicted, consumer research suggests that as both the number of options and the information about options increases, consumers tend to consider fewer choices and to process a smaller portion of the available information concerning their choices [5]. This phenomenon is known as choice overload, and it has been observed both in inconsequential contexts (e.g., choice of snack foods) and in very consequential decision making processes, such as the choice of retirement savings plans. Thus, when agents have either too much and hard-to-process, or unreliable-information, their decisions seem to be more and more influenced by default rules, framing (media – what they saw in a movie etc.), anchoring (cognitive bias – what you are already familiar with), procrastination (indecisiveness), and endorsement effects (server suggestions).

In line with the intuitions of Iyengar & Lepper (2000), preexisting preferences or expertise did indeed have an effect on the choice overload issue: people with existing preferences were not as troubled by additional items when making a choice, relative to those without such preferences.”

A nuanced distinction in that over choice may only be a problem when the items are too similar in several ways:

  • Similar in price
  • Similar in style
  • Similar in flavor profile

Suggestions On What To Do

Don’t overwhelm your guest with more options that are necessary. Don’t offer many similar options.

Menu development

Objective: Happy Customers & Optimal Profit Margins


  • 8-12 cocktails maximum: They do not need to be new
  • 3 Seasonal Menus. Autumn and Winter are similar no need to switch.
    • 01 Oct – 31 January: Autumn & Winter menu
    • 01 Feb – 31 May: Spring menu.
    • 01 June – 30 September: Summer menu.
    • Seasonal prices of certain ingredients (citrus & herb price varies per season).
  • Wine & Champagne cocktails minimize Wine/Champagne spillage.
  • Emphasis on speedy service: 5-ingredient drinks (including bitters dashes, fruit etc).
  • Quick, beautiful garnishes, no ingredients that result in tools or sinks that are difficult to clean. Especially, inexpensive, quick, innovative “wow” garnishes.
  • Keep your speedwell in mind: If you can share an ingredient across cocktails then you will be able to build more drinks simultaneously with fewer steps, increasing the bartenders’ speed of service.
  • Utilize all glassware. If the majority of your cocktails use the same glassware you are going to risk running out of that glassware on a busy night. Plus, it’s boring to see every drink in the same glassware, guest reading a cocktail menushowcase each piece of glass.
  • Reduce the assortment to create space on the back bar. Let’s only have the bitters we think we need: we don’t need seven types of orange bitters, for instance. Ditto to gin, rum, tequila, etc.
  • Mirrored bar stations: All stations should contain all the ingredients needed to make all the drinks on the list, using both the speed rail and the ice well itself. Vermouths etc. can stay in the fridge; champagne and white wine be shared in an ice bucket in the middle of the bar. But we must have both stations absolutely identical.
  • Minimum 75% GP (Gross Profit margin) on the entire drinks list AND liquor, beer, wine etc. Individual drinks may have slightly a lower GP if the average is around 75%. Any drink with the potential to be the next “cash cow” ( a la Tequila por mi Amante or Southside Royal) MUST have a GP of 75% or higher.

A diversity of options should be complemented with the ease of comparisons among them.

Example: Organize your cocktails by style (spirit forward, long/refreshing), Then by base spirit and then by citrus. These are flavors people can identify universally, they can start to envision what the drinks “mood” is.

Let me know what elements of a great menu are for you and what you find most annoying about them in comments below.

1* Choice Overload and Height Ranking of Menus in Partially-Ordered Sets

2* Psychology Today: Is Choice Overload a Real Thing?

3* SSRN: Consumers Can Make Decisions in as Little as a Third of a Second

Medical News Today: Choice overload: Why decision-making can be so hard

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