Sensory Science Applications in Food Service

By: Nikki Nies

Top Shelf: Beef Short Rib Enchiladas—Chili’s

Napa Almond Chicken Sandwich—Panera Brad

New England Fish & Chips—Friendly’s

Wisconsin Mac ‘n Cheese—Noodles & Co.

Firecracker Salmon—Outback Steakhouse

Premium Grilled Chicken Clubhouse Sandwich—McDonald’s

Rodeo Burger—Burger King

Hand Breaded Shrimp—Red Lobster

Giddy Up BBQ Chicken—Pizza Hut

What similarities do you find in the foods listed above? Stumped? Alright, we’ll give you the answer! These menu items have been elevated with descriptive, sensory words in front of the regular menu item, which provides more interest in the food. Learn more about the science and thought process behind the creation of these menu names! While sensory science definitely has a place in the lab, there is room and a need for sensory and consumer research in food service.

“Food quality can be considered both the most well-defined and the least well-defined concept in the food industry today” –Armand Cardello, Science and Technology Directorate, U.S. Army Natick RD & E

SensoryScienceLike the quote implies, while researchers and health professionals would like to think they know what consumers want while dining out, biased personal opinions can impair one’s ability to know what the CONSUMER thinks is high quality. For example, perceived quality for foodservice workers may be perceived as price of entry. Yet, that may not what will enhance the quality of service and food in the consumer’s eyes. Consumers need more tangible qualities—level of freshness, nutritional composition, microbial quality, grades (i.e. meat), adequate serving temperature, and proper preparation. In other words, food quality=consumer acceptability. With increased acceptability, sales increased, which is an aspect of business all want to see.

Since every consumer has their own food preferences and opinion of what “quality” is, it’s imperative to implement consumer testing (i.e. online surveys, focus groups) to better understand and cater to consumer wants and needs. Consumers who are frequent users of the foodservice establishment comprise the target market and help define food quality.

FoodService ImplicationsFood quality is influenced by context and expectations. In regards to context, the environment and place of consumption needs be taken into consideration when evaluating the quality of food. The judged quality of a fast food meal eaten while out during a day of shopping with children will be different than the judged quality of the same meal if served at a luxury hotel. Secondly, expectations of food quality range, with the highest expectations equated with home cooked meals and are lowest for airline meals. Sit down restaurants, public school cafeterias and hospitals’ food quality expectation can be found in between these two extremes.

With such a variety of sensory science applications, Dr. Brian Wansink, has provided four suggestive ways to label food: 1) brand, sensory, geographic and nostalgia 7

Label Description Examples Fun Fact
Brand Involves a cross promotion with a related brand that has important associations that can make menu item more attractive; implies “if you love the brand, you’ll love the item”; be mindful of brand halos and/or have negative associations Jack Daniels, BBQ Ribs, Butterfinger, Blizzard; spokesperson Descriptive menu item labels increase food sales and improve consumer’s attitudes of the food served and the restaurant
Sensory If labels accurately describe the taste, smell or mouth feel of menu item, customers will be more able to picture themselves with it Snappy Seasonal Carrots, Buttery Plump Pasta, Hearty Wholesome Steaks Ice cream shops accomplish this—i.e. French Silk Chocolate
Geographic Labels claim to reproduce same flavors that are specifically found in geographic areas; “Real” Carolina BBQ; Country Peach Tart; Iowa Pork Chop; Southwestern Tex-Mex Salad 12.4% of all U.S. foodservice operation have at least 1 menu item mentioning CA in menu item, 2011 study from MenuMine Foodservice Research Institute
Nostalgia Alludes to past time periods can trigger happy memories of family, tradition and nationalism Ye Old Potato Bread, Nana’s FavoriteChicken Soup, Classic Old World Italian, Legendary Chocolate Mouse Pie Customers sometimes like the feeling of tasting something wholesome/traditional because “they sure don’t make’em like they used to”

To better answer the introductory question of “What similarities does one find in the foods listed,” a study led by Koert et al., 2005 showed the positive impact of changing foods from regular names to descriptive label.1 It was found more descriptive menu items were more appealing to the eye, with consumers agreeing that foods tasted better than the regularly described food items, describing restaurant as a “finer” establishment, more likely to eat again, willing to spend more for food items with descriptive labels, reported satisfaction and comfort increase. Remember, the same exact food is served with or without the descriptive menu options. Crazy, right?

Let’s move on to more applicable uses of sensory science in foodservice:

I: School Food Service

Children are a lot more food savvy than given credit for in the past.   By the age of six years, they will more likely than not be able to decide what they will and won’t eat. However, there is limited info on what children specifically want in school food service. Therefore, child nutrition professionals must continue to better understand children’s food preferences. Future studies should include follow up questions to learn how these wants and needs can be best met from the customer’s perspective. By doing this, child nutrition professionals will ensure best possible environment will be provided to make most effective use of resources.3

II: Hospital Food Service

The hospital food service paradox states :”…what we need is basic care, the food that we want, it should be hot, it should be well presented and well cooked. If we don’t eat we will be in the hospital for longer and all we want to do is go home…” With 200/500 patients were undernourished upon admission; 75% lost weight while in hospital.4

The central issue is that hospital food often has a poor image, with consumers having a preconceived negative notion of what kind of food they’ll receive even before admission. Specifically, patients anticipate poor quality and low acceptance. In addition, peripheral issues include unwilling customers; customers’ anxious, frightened and removed from security of home; surrounded by strangers; loss of privacy surrounded by ‘superior’ knowledgeable staff; eating needs have to fit in with medical needs; unnatural eating position; meal times imposed; menu choices required to be made early in day.2

III: “Sommelier” Skills in Food ServiceFood Recommendations

A lot of the services of wine sommeliers can be transferred to food service as well. For example, food and wine pairing, wine tasting paring and wine recommendation by taste and style can be easily be translated into providing food recommendation based on personal tastes, making produce and main dish pairings, providing food recommendations based on health benefits and/or offering food and produce tasting classes. To drive the point home, one can recommend to consumers “If you like X, you’ll love –> you love eggplant, you’ll love mizuna!”

Feeling invigorated to use these tools in your food service establishment, keep on reading for some of Annette Hottenstein’s Insider Secrets!

IV: Insider Secrets from the Restaurant Industry Pancakes Flight

  • Test out new menu items and ideas with consumers
    1. Serve potential new food items in focus groups
    2. Promote healthy entrees
  • Utilize Customer satisfaction surveys
    1. on your receipt include a link to an internet based customer satisfaction survey or physical customer comment card
    2. entice customers by entering in raffle/coupon for a low cost item as a completion incentive
    3. Check out FREE surveys forms on Sensational Sustenance’s website
  • Ethnography
    1. study of cultures through close observation, reading and interpretation
    2. What people say they believe and say don’t always coincide with their behavior
    3. OBSERVE customers: Where and with whom do they sit with? Who is ordering what? What is their mood? Do they appear to have difficulty eating anything? What is their body language and facial expressions while they eat? Etc?
  • Check out the competition
    1. Travel and eat out at the competition
      1. Sample a wide variety
    2. Assemble a list of “best in class” for a variety of operational areas, including best menus, counter service, décor, etc.
  • Menu and Trend Research
    1. Can help answer which ingredients and flavors are gaining popularity and appearance on more menus. Are there gaps in our menu that are hurting sales? What are some of the best options to fill those gaps and improve competitive position? How do menu trends vary by region?

V: “Tasty” Resources

1) FREE National Restaurant Association’s What’s Hot Culinary Forecast 2) Technomic’s MenuMonitor 3) Mintel’s Menu Insight 4) Cornell Food and Brand Lab 5) NPD Group

Every one is a customer in the food industry, craving the best quality of food. That includes the restaurant manager, waitresses and consumers. A lot of thought, creativity and development are put into the design and quality of food served. Next time you’re dining out, take an extra second and review the menu’s descriptions at hand. You won’t be able to deny the sensory science application being used in the cafeteria, airplanes, fast casual dining restaurants, hotels and more!

Photo Credit: Sensational Sustenance and Ift 


  1. Brian, Koert van Ittersum and James E. Painter (2005), “How descriptive food names bias sensory perceptions in restaurants”, Food Quality and Preference, 16:5, 393–400
  2. Hartwell, Heather J., John SA Edwards, and John Beavis. “Plate versus bulk trolley food service in a hospital: comparison of patients’ satisfaction.” Nutrition23.3 (2007): 211-218.
  3. KAY MEYER, MARY. Top Predictors of Middle/Junior High School Students’ Satisfaction with School Food Service and Nutrition Programs. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Volume 100, Issue 1, 100 – 103.
  4. McWhirter J.P. and Pennington C.R. (1994) Incidence and Recognition of Malnutrition in Hospitals. British Medical Journal, 308, 945-948
  1. Tuorila, H. M., Meiselman, H. L., Cardello, A. V., and Lesher, L.L. (1998), “Effect of expectation and the definition of product category on the acceptance of unfamiliar foods”, Food Quality and Preference, Vol. 9, No. 6., pp. 421-430.
  2. Wansink, Brian, David Just and Collin Payne (2012). “Can branding improve school lunches?” Preventive Medicine 166(10): 967-968, doi:10.1001/archpediatrics.2012.999
  1. Wansink, Brian, James Painter, and Koert van Ittersum (2001), “Descriptive Menu. Labels’ Effect on Sales,” Cornell hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, December 42:4,68-72.

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