Local businesses use Texas A&M behavior science to design menus

At one end of Brazos County, Messina Hof Winery offers Texas wine.

“We always want to make wine as simple as possible,” said Karen Bonarrigo, chief administrative officer at Messina Hof.

At the other end, 1775 offers Texas pit barbecue.

“The customers seem to enjoy it,” said Brad Doan, owner of 1775 Texas Pit BBQ.

Right in the middle, a highly scientific lab offers them both highly scientific menus.

“We see this as a win-win,” said Marco Palma, director of the Texas A&M Human Behavior Laboratory.

While the Texas A&M Human Behavior Lab looks like non-descript office cubicles, the technology is anything but ordinary. Devices track your eyes, monitor your facial expressions, and even keep track of your brain function as you participate in stimulating experiments.

“Some of these things [participants] cannot really fake,” said Palma. “We can use these devices to understand what drives motivation.”

Palma and his team used these tools to analyze how people look at Messina Hof's tasting menu.

Some results may not surprise you.

“We found out that people don't like to read menus,” said Bonarrigo with a laugh.

Some results brought change to the menu, however. Messina Hof now uses a less scripted font, “so that it’s easier to read” and shifted the color tone to redder hues because “apparently [red] gets you very excited about drinking wine,” Bonarrigo explained.

Most importantly, Messina Hof changed the way they categorize the wine.

“If we have multiple merlots, it's good for them to know there are three that they can choose between,” said Bonarrigo, instead of grouping them by price.

Back at 1775 Texas Pit BBQ, the behavior researchers are using the menu board as an experiment itself.

“Kind of being the guinea pig for the Texas barbecue industry,” said Doan.

Again, a better font is used, and the turkey option was moved to the top of the menu list.

“And put a nice description about what the turkey breast was,” said Doan.

According to Doan, the change has already increased turkey sales 30%.

“I want everyone to buy brisket, obviously that's our number one selling item,” said Doan. “But hey, I want to sell turkey too.”

While making barbecue and wine may involve some trade, these local businesses are happy to share the secrets of selling, whether through television interviews, through sharing with industry colleagues, or by sending their results and data back to the Texas A&M Human Behavior Laboratory.

“They're helping us understand different motivations of consumers,” said Palma.