Despite how it may seem at first glance, keeping some menu items hidden may make ordering less complicated. After all, it's easy to imagine a customer staring at a giant, sprawling menu with several hundred choices and feeling paralyzed, wondering what to order. But if you have certain dietary needs or wants, and you know you can get them at a Panera Bread or another restaurant, the hidden menu concept may become even more popular. In fact, Davis says that with the rise of handheld devices and loyalty card programs, hidden menus tailored to specific tastes could easily soon become the norm.
That, and secret menus add an element of mystery and fun to eating out. "It further engages the patron, encourages a following and promotes brand loyalty," says Christina Pappas, director of marketing for Pappas Restaurants Inc. The Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, located in Houston and Dallas, has been serving its crab macaroni and cheese since 2010 but has never put it on the menu.
Sometimes these secret menu items eventually make their way onto the actual menu. Marco's Pizza, with locations in 29 states as well as the Bahamas and Panama, is in the midst of considering a national rollout of a cinnamon-flavored dessert that for years wasn't on the menu and was only served in a Strongsville, Ohio, outlet.
"It is a great idea to have secret menus," says Karen Mishra, associate professor of marketing at the Meredith College School of Business in Raleigh, N.C. "There might be some customers who will feel left out, but for those truly loyal customers, they will feel like they have something special, just for them."
She says loyal customers are the ones restaurants especially want to cater to, in part because they will spread the word about the food to friends and family.
Another reason to keep certain menu items undercover: "The restaurant can try new things with a secret menu and decide if they want to roll them out on a national level, make some tweaks, or just pretend it never happened," says Mishra.
Corrected on 03/13/13: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Scott Davis, executive vice president and chief concept officer for Panera Bread.