Journal of Culinary Science & Technology, 11:275–285, 2013
Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 1542-8052 print/1542-8044 online
Menu Choice: Satisfaction or Overload?
NICK JOHNS,1JOHN S. A. EDWARDS,2and HEATHER J. HARTWELL2
1School of Management, College of Management & Technology, Walden University,
2Foodservice and Applied Nutrition Research Group, Bournemouth University,
Poole, Dorset, England
Two series of menus were prepared in the styles of quick service
and ﬁne dining restaurants, respectively. The menus in each series
differed only in the number of choices offered under each menu
category. Members of the public attending two university open days
rated the menus using a 9-point scale, from 1 =far too little
choice,5=about right,to9=far too much choice. A total of
202 and 241 respondents completed the ﬁne dining and quick
service questionnaires, respectively. Results showed signiﬁcant dif-
ferences in perception between number of choices, an ideal rating
of 6 choices for the quick service items and of 7–10 for ﬁne din-
ing items. This corresponds well with what has previously been
found for retail food products but opens further questions about
customers’ expectations and the nature of choice.
KEYWORDS Restaurants, menus, choice, choice overload,
quick-service, ﬁne dining
The menu occupies a key position in the marketing, presentation, and
operation of a restaurant business. Menus vary with different types of estab-
lishment from a relatively simple list to an extensive range of items, which
may even be drawn from several different sources. For example, English
pubs may feature a dining menu and a bar menu as well as the day’s specials
Received 21 November 2012; accepted 29 January 2013.
Address correspondence to Nick Johns, School of Management, College of Management
& Technology, Walden University, 100 Washington Ave. South, Suite 900, Minneapolis, MN
56401, USA. E-mail: email@example.com
276 N. Johns et al.
written on a chalkboard and sometimes a further chalkboard or menu card
with the desserts. A prevailing belief that a greater range of choices is more
attractive to customers means that selections (including menus) offered to
consumers tend to become increasingly extensive (Schwartz, 2004). Some
restaurants in the UK and the United States offer literally hundreds of
items (Gate Nuneaton, 2011; Papagayo, 2011; Spice Kitchen Cheddar, 2011).
In contrast, British families eating at home are reported to rely on just nine
different meals (Mail on Line, 2009) and consumer surveys suggest that
though 60% of restaurant customers choose something they would not eat
every day, 40% select familiar foods (Business Link, 2009). Offering choices is
considered to bring marketing and customer satisfaction beneﬁts, but exten-
sive menus also place a strain on restaurant operations (Ninemeier & Hayes,
2005). It is therefore desirable to know the optimum range of choices for
meals eaten outside the home. This study investigates the effects of varying
the number of choices offered on ﬁne dining and quick-service restaurant
The idea that consumers are better off when offered more choices
is supported by choice theory through the principle of regularity, which
states that adding an item to a choice set cannot increase the probabil-
ity of choosing an item from the original set (Rieskamp, Busemeyer, &
Mellers, 2006). However, choosing typically requires activity in the form of
searching and evaluation. Searching depends upon the range of items and
their accessibility, and evaluation depends upon the availability and com-
plexity of information about the choice items. Hence, various authors hold
that selecting from a large choice set is more difﬁcult and hence less sat-
isfying for customers (Broniarczyk, Hoyer, & McAlister, 1998; Greifeneder,
Scheibehenne, & Kleber, 2010; Hanoch, Rice, Cummings, & Wood, 2009;
Iyengar & Lepper, 2000; Norwood, 2006; Reutskaja & Hogarth, 2009; Sela,
Berger, & Liu, 2009). Schwartz (2004) went so far as to suggest that increased
afﬂuence and consumer choice in the United States have been accompanied
by a general decrease in well-being. The proposition that too much choice is
unsatisfactory or harmful has been given various names by different authors
but has come to be called the choice overload hypothesis (Scheibehenne,
Greifeneder, & Todd, 2009, 2010; Sela et al., 2009). Reutskaja and Hogarth
(2009) proposed that there is an optimum range of choices at which sat-
isfaction peaks—that is, ﬁrst rising and then subsequently falling off in an
inverted “U” or bell shape as the difﬁculty of evaluating the options out-
weighs the perceived beneﬁts. Several researchers have reported a similar
relationship (Reutskaja & Hogarth, 2009; Sela et al. 2009; Shah & Wolford,
2007). Having more information about the choice items restricts and slows
the selection process, and the optimum number of options has been found
to be lower for more complex items where a larger number of parameters
have to be evaluated (Hauser & Wernerfelt, 1990; Iyengar & Lepper, 2000;
Reutskaja & Hogarth, 2009).
Menu Choice: Satisfaction or Overload? 277
The relationship between choice and satisfaction is complex. Reutskaja
and Hogarth (2009) identiﬁed two different aspects: outcome satisfaction—
that is, satisfaction with the ultimate choice—and process satisfaction—that
is, satisfaction with the way the choice was made. In addition, extensive
choice sets are known to be attractive to consumers before the pro-
cess of choosing begins, so a presentation satisfaction also seems to exist
(Greifeneder et al. 2010; Iyengar & Lepper, 2000). Individuals adopt various
strategies for the task of choosing. They may weigh up the costs of making
the decision against its expected beneﬁts (Hauser & Wernerfelt, 1990) or,
conversely, they may satisﬁce—that is, opt for the best of a small group of
randomly chosen items from the larger set (Güth, 2010)—or eliminate items
that have unsatisfactory aspects. Another strategy is to decide upon the pur-
chase criteria beforehand and choose this default option. Chernev (2003)
has shown that those who adopt this strategy are more likely to be satisﬁed
choosing from a large set than a small one, because they are more likely
to ﬁnd an item that fulﬁlls their criteria. Strategies also include making no
choice, deferring the decision, or seeking new choice sets, which may also
bring negative consequences, such as lost opportunities (Iyengar, Jiang, &
Huberman, 2004). Satisfaction from perceived success—that is, an accept-
able choice made in an acceptable time frame—depends not only upon the
strategy used but also on the personality of the chooser (Dar-Nimrod, Rawn,
Lehman, & Schwartz, 2009).
A number of other factors affect choice. Older individuals have been
shown to prefer signiﬁcantly less choice than younger adults across vari-
ous types of item, including foods (Hanoch et al., 2009; Reed, Mikels, &
Simon, 2008; Rozin, Fischler, Shields, & Masson, 2006). A variety of food
choices has been reported to be more important to females than to males
(Beatty, 1982), although no equivalent preference has been found for choice
in general. Differences have also been reported between different national
cultures. Rozin et al. (2006) found that a majority of consumers in the United
States preferred to choose from a set of 50 rather than 10 ice creams, a much
higher proportion than in the UK, Germany, France, or Switzerland. They
attributed this to differences in expectations. Consumers who are required
to justify their choice tend to select options that are easier to justify (Sela
et al., 2009). This is of special relevance to choosing from a restaurant
menu, which is frequently undertaken in a group, where justiﬁcation may be
perceived to be required by peers (McFerran, Dahl, Fitzsimons, & Morales,
2010). Categorization of choice sets into smaller groups of options has been
shown to increase satisfaction because it increases the perception of a large
choice array (and hence self-determination and satisfaction) while at the
same time reducing the stress of weighing up many products together (Kahn
& Wansink, 2004; Mogilner, Rudnick, & Iyengar, 2008).
Scheibehenne et al. (2009) cautioned against an oversimpliﬁed explana-
tion of these phenomena. In a series of studies, they tested four moderating
278 N. Johns et al.
factors: well-deﬁned preferences held prior to choosing, cultural differences
(between the United States and Germany), further increases in the choice
set, and choice justiﬁcation. They were unable to demonstrate choice over-
load except where participants were required to justify their choice explicitly.
They pointed out that studies by Sela et al. (2009), Iyengar and Lepper (2000),
Mogilner et al. (2008), and others required participants to justify their choice
in some way. The same researchers (Scheibehenne et al., 2010) conducted a
meta-analysis of 5,036 published and unpublished experiments in the ﬁeld,
concluding that the statistical evidence did not support the choice overload
hypothesis except where choice justiﬁcation was part of the experimental
protocol. A stated objection to the choice overload hypothesis is that it vio-
lates the regularity axiom of economic choice theory (Scheibehenne et al.,
2010). Yet it has been shown that most of the consumer choice strategies
discussed above are also contrary to this principle (, 1981), and it is not clear
whether statistical distribution can in fact remove the violation, as theory
requires. In addition, the majority of the studies analyzed by Scheibehenne
et al., (2010) were comparisons of small and large choice sets, and Reutskaja
and Hogarth (2009) pointed to the danger of omitting intermediate set sizes,
which may remove the critical optimum point of their hypothesized bell
curve. The fact that older individuals prefer a smaller choice set size suggests
that the increasing range of choices has become overwhelming within rela-
tively recent years, as Schwartz (2004) suggested. Although this supports the
choice overload hypothesis, it also suggests that perceived optimum choice
and perhaps the idea of choice overload may be socially constructed; that is,
individuals regard their expected range of choices as optimum and expect
to be stressed when it is exceeded. Support for this suggestion may be seen
in the ﬁndings of Rozin et al. (2006) regarding choice preferences of people
of different nationalities.
There has been very little research on the amount of choice offered
by restaurant menus. Iyengar and Lepper (2000) suggested that restaurants
do not obey the choice overload principle: “Obviously the more items on
the menu, the more satisﬁed these customers will be, on average” (p. 996).
On the contrary, Rozin et al. (2006) found that more than 60% of respondents
in the United States and the UK and more than 80% in France would prefer
a menu with “a small number of suggestions from the chef” rather than “a
large choice with numerous different dishes” (p. 306). Thus, information
regarding restaurant menu choice is anecdotal at best. Broniarczyk et al.
(1998) suggested that in a retail setting, the number of items offered may be
substantially reduced without negatively affecting assortment perception, as
long as only low-preference items are eliminated. In a foodservice setting,
it is of interest to know whether menu choices could be reduced to an opti-
mum number using the same principle and, if so, what this optimum number
might be. This study tests the proposition that there may be an ideal number
of menu items from which diners are comfortable making a selection.
Menu Choice: Satisfaction or Overload? 279
Two different menu scenarios were prepared, in both cases by downloading
examples of menus published on the Internet. The ﬁrst reproduced a ﬁne
dining menu using published examples from 10 ﬁve-star hotels, which were
initially combined to form a composite menu containing 15 ﬁrst courses,
15 main courses, and 15 dessert courses, each with a brief description
of ingredients and preparation. Two comparable but shorter menus were
produced by successively removing ﬁve dishes from each course, leaving
balanced selections with respectively 10 and 5 choices for each course. The
three menus were discussed with experienced chefs to ensure that in culi-
nary terms they were balanced and appropriate to the scenario and were
printed on a card to give an appearance of a ﬁne dining scenario.
The second scenario was prepared in an analogous way; that is, by
downloading 10 menus from quick-service, chain restaurants advertised on
the Internet. These restaurants tend to group menu items by type—for
example, starters, chicken dishes, steaks, burgers, pizzas, etc.—rather than
offering discrete courses. The second scenario therefore grouped items into
the format adopted by one of the restaurants as follows:
●Fish, vegetarian, and pasta dishes
●Grills and classic meat dishes
●Steaks and burgers
A master menu, containing 10 dishes in each of the six groups, was pre-
pared and one-line descriptions was added for each item. In order to
prepare shorter versions, two dishes were progressively deleted from each
group, providing ﬁve menus ranging from 2 to 10 dishes for each group.
These menus were discussed with the same panel of chefs to verify the
choices that had been made and were printed on card in an informal
style suggesting a quick-service scenario. A simple questionnaire was pre-
pared to accompany each menu. It set the scene in a few lines and
asked respondents to indicate their perception of the appropriateness of
the level of choices offered for each course on the ﬁne dining menus and
for each group on the quick-service menus. A 9-point scale was used,
from 1 =far too little choice,5=about right,to9=far too much
choice. The questionnaire also asked the respondents for basic demographic
Data were collected by master’s students and members of faculty from
parents and prospective students during May–July 2010. Family groups of
two to four people were approached while drinking and eating in the
280 N. Johns et al.
university cafeteria and asked whether they would take part in the study.
Participants were told that their views on the menus (not speciﬁcally on
the number of choices) were being sought and were asked to complete a
questionnaire about one of the menu versions in terms of its content and
the number of choices available. Approval for the conduct of this research
was granted by the School Ethics Committee, who considered that consent
would assumed by subjects’ voluntary participation once they had received
an oral brieﬁng. All but two of those approached agreed to take part,
completing the questionnaire in approximately 5 minutes. Completed ques-
tionnaires were subsequently collected from the table and respondents were
thanked. A total of 202 people completed the three ﬁne dining question-
naires, and 242 people completed the ﬁve quick-service questionnaires. The
demographic breakdown is shown in Table 1.
Data were entered into SPSS ver. 16 (IBM, Hampshire, UK) descriptive
statistics were calculated, and the results were compared using analysis of
variance and Tukey’s honestly signiﬁcant difference post hoc test. A p value
≤0.05 was considered signiﬁcant.
Figures 1 and 2 show the relationship between mean satisfaction rating and
number of choices for the ﬁne dining and quick-service scenarios, respec-
tively. Error bars show the standard error of each point, supporting the
analysis of variance/Tukey’s test ﬁndings that all choice levels were sig-
niﬁcantly differentiated. The “ideal” rating (5.0) for the ﬁne dining menus
was between 5 and 10 choices, and for the quick-service menus it was
almost exactly 6 choices. Ratings of the categories in scenario 2 were closely
grouped, with no discernible pattern of differentiation, but there was dif-
ferentiation between the courses for the ﬁne dining, scenario 1 menus, as
TAB LE 1 Demographics of the Sample
Fine dining scenario Quick-service scenario
Male 77 94
Female 116 134
No response 9 14
<21 80 92
21–35 18 21
36–65 95 123
>65 1 0
No response 8 6
Menu Choice: Satisfaction or Overload? 281
5 Choices 10 Choices 15 Choices
Too much choiceToo little choice
FIGURE 1 Fine dining menu/overall satisfaction with number of choices.
2 Choices 4 Choices 6 Choices 8 Choices 10 Choices
Too much choiceToo little choice
FIGURE 2 Quick-service menu/overall satisfaction with number of choices.
shown in Figure 3. Between 7 and 8 choices was deemed satisfactory for
starters and desserts, but a signiﬁcantly higher number of choices (10) was
indicated as desirable for main courses. There were no signiﬁcant differ-
ences between the preferences for different age groups or between males
and females in either scenario.
282 N. Johns et al.
5 Choices 10 Choices 15 Choices
Too much choice
Too little choice
FIGURE 3 Fine dining menu/satisfaction with number of choices by course.
DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS
The results show that restaurant customers have an ideal number of menu
choices; that is, about 6 for quick service and varying between 7 for starters
and desserts to 10 for main courses in ﬁne dining restaurants. The lack of
differences between the sexes or different age groups suggests that there
is indeed an ideal number of menu choices below which customers feel
restricted and above which the effort required to make a choice becomes
undesirable. These results support the bell curve proposition of Reutskaja
and Hogarth (2009) and are comparable with studies of various products
that have identiﬁed an ideal range of choices of about ﬁve items (Mogilner
et al., 2008; Sela et al., 2009) or six items (Iyengar & Lepper, 2000). The
fact that ideal choice sets were larger in ﬁne dining than in quick service is
interesting and may represent a balance between information and control.
More information is offered on ﬁne dining menus, but more responsibility is
accorded to the chef. The issue of locus of control in choice has not been
studied so far and may be a fruitful ﬁeld for further work.
The fact that participants in this study were not required to jus-
tify choices contradicts the proposal by Scheibehenne et al. (2009) that
choice overload is dependent upon the need to justify choices. No men-
tion was made of satisfaction in the study, which removes another common
objection to previous choice overload experiments, namely, that different
aspects of satisfaction are associated with choice (Reutskaja & Hogarth,
2009; Scheibehenne et al., 2009). It was necessary to use different numbers
Menu Choice: Satisfaction or Overload? 283
of menu items because two different restaurant scenarios were considered,
but a consistent pattern emerged despite the different numbers. Many types
of menu categorize their items, especially in quick-service establishments.
As discussed in the Introduction, this reduces the range of choices that would
be found in a simple list of what is available and hence presumably also
reduces customers’ expectations of choice set size. This could account for
the difference in ideal choice set size between the two types of menu.
The circumstances of this and other studies admit the possibility that
respondents are selecting the midpoints of the ranges offered as ideal.
Therefore, one would hesitate to claim that the ideal number of menu
choices has been established. The possibility remains that respondents might
have given a different ideal number of choices if the range was different
or if no range was given. This suggests a need for further studies where
the expected ideal number is not close to the midpoint of what is offered.
Another possibility might be to offer an even-numbered range with no mid-
point. Alternatively, it would be worth devising a study in which no range
was given and the ideal number of choices could be elicited in a situation
that was guaranteed not to bias the result.
It should be noted that this study was limited in terms of national
culture and sample demographics. The research took place in the UK
and it is therefore possible that this affected the generalizability of the
results for two reasons. Customers in the UK are frequently exposed to
choice, in a way that those in, for example, many African countries are not
(Schwartz, 2004). From this point of view, the results should be comparable
with most Western countries. However, nations also speciﬁcally differ in
their expectations and use of restaurants; for instance, the offerings of a
generic Chinese or Indian restaurant are very different in Germany than
in the UK and similarly different in the UK than in the United States.
The sample consisted exclusively of prospective students and their par-
ents. Although these groups are likely to frequent quick-service and ﬁne
dining restaurants, respectively, they cannot be claimed to be representa-
tive of the clientele of either; in addition their exclusive presence narrowed
down the demographics of the sample. It would also have been helpful
to know the frequency with which respondents ate in the two types of
In conclusion, this study shows that there is an optimum number of
restaurant menu items below and above which consumers say they are less
happy with the choice set size. The optimum number of menu choices is
comparable to that found in studies on item choice. The fact that consumers
were able to express this idea without using the concept of satisfaction and
arrived at the optimum number without being made to justify their choices
enhances the robustness of this ﬁnding. The study has indicated a need to
establish the extent to which expectation inﬂuences the ideal choice set and
whether the concept of choice overload is socially constructed. Locus of
284 N. Johns et al.
control, which has not been investigated as a moderator of choice, would
seem worthy of study. Overall, it is clear that optimum choice set size is an
important factor to consider when menus are compiled.
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