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Restaurant menu development tips to meet consumer expectations

Image: Photographed by Melicacy for Hilton Auckland

The ability to understand and gratify consumers’ palates is a key factor in the success of hospitality establishments. The following is a study on the concepts of “omnivore’s paradox” and “principle of incorporation” introduced by Fischler (1988) --in relation to commercial dining sectors. Read on to find out how omnivore’s paradox can impact the way commercial chefs design their menus, and how the principle of incorporation influences consumers’ preferences in restaurants.

The concepts of “omnivore’s paradox” and “principle of incorporation” introduced by Fischler (1988) play vital roles in determining consumption patterns. A persistent dilemma – to dish out inventive dishes to excite diners, or to continue serving unsurpassed favourites to please regular customers – can be observed in restaurants. Fischler attributes this to the omnivore’s paradox, described as humans’ tendency to sway between neophilia (defined as the desire for novelty) and neophobia (defined as the fear of something new).

The understanding of omnivore’s paradox is crucial to deciphering what customers seek in dining establishments. An omnivore is described as a person or animal that obtains nutrients from a variety of foods, while a paradox can be described as an innate and self-contradictory trait. Fischler explains that humans, as omnivores, do not restrict themselves to a particular source of food. This statement corresponds to their need for a medley of nutrients from different sources for survival. Fischler adds that humans are able to sustain in the absence of habitually consumed foods by adapting accordingly to circumstances, making use of available foods. This pattern of consumption can be observed in dining scenes today, where many dishes consist of a combination of protein, vegetable, and carbohydrate components, in tune with an omnivore’s needs. As explained by Fischler, the omnivore’s paradox is an omnivore’s innate psychological conflict between the fear of unfamiliarity and risks involved, and the hankering for something novel and exciting. These contradictions are termed neophobia and neophilia respectively (Fischler, 1988). According to Mitchell and Hall (2003), this paradox can be further broken down into three dimensions: desiring new flavours while exhibiting apprehension towards unappealing flavours; maintaining health through a varied diet while expressing a concern of being poisoned; and sustaining life through the death of other organisms. The concepts of neophilia and neophobia can provide an explanation to some of consumers’ behaviours and choices. Consequently, chefs can consider addressing these concerns when planning a menu.

Image: Photographed by Melicacy for Hilton Auckland

Many chefs endeavour to continually strive to strike a balance between novelty and familiarity in their quest to meet customers’ demands. Neophobia may seem to restrict the creativity of chefs. On the contrary, according to Bell and Valentine (as cited in Mitchell and Hall, 2003), neophilia has encouraged the development of inventive culinary creations.

In response to the omnivores’ paradox of wanting to indulge in variety for well being while being sceptical of the edibility of unfamiliar ingredients, dining establishments can aim to eliminate this fear by gaining customers’ trust through maintaining a good reputation, and having an excellent track record of food safety and reliability. To reduce the intimidating effect, restaurants can introduce exotic ingredients as a small element on the dish instead of having it play the dominant role. Providing a sense of safety and trust is vital in the dining industry. For instance, according to Buerk (2012), Fugu (Japnanese word for puffer fish) is considered a delicacy in Japan, but if mishandled, will be lethal. Hence, one should only trust certified chefs to do the job (Buerk, 2012). Additionally, to inject creativity into a dish, chefs can also experiment with unorthodox cooking methods using familiar ingredients to entice customers into ordering the dish. Given these points, it is important for commercial chefs to achieve balance between familiarity and unfamiliarity in foods offered to guests, taking into account the characteristics of the omnivore’s paradox.

Image: Photographed by Melicacy for Hilton Auckland

Closely associated with the omnivore's paradox, the principle of incorporation is another concept introduced by Fischler (1988) that, similarly, plays a big part in the dining industry. Fischler defines the principle of incorporation simply as “you are what you eat” (p. 279). To elaborate, the act of consumption involves the absorption of nutritional qualities, as well as the meanings attached to the food, which can be subjective and imaginative. Fischler deduces that since “food makes the eater: it is therefore natural that the eater should try to make himself by eating” (p. 282). Validation of this hypothesis can be observed in consumers’ decisions around the world today, where foods are selected based on nutritional values, cultural symbolisms, and social status attached to them.

Gronow (1997) asserts that foods that are restricted to the upper echelons of the population are classified as being prestigious. This characteristic can be linked to conspicuous consumption, which is defined as “the tendency to show one’s status or prestige through consumption” (Veblen, as cited in Park, 1997, p. 191). For that reason, consumers select these foods with the intention of elevating their status, even if it means damaging their health, or wallets (Gronow, 1997). Fischler also recognises that consumers select their foods based on how they want to be identified, or what culture they want to be associated with. As a result, they may avoid certain foods customarily consumed by a culture that they want to dissociate with (Fischler, 1988). Another important aspect of the principle of incorporation that influences customers’ choices is the nutritional properties and biological effects of food. Corvo (2015) expresses that foods can affect human behaviour; for instance, caffeine enhances alertness, while chamomile has soothing properties. These foreseen effects can influence consumers’ decision. According to Fox and Ward (2008), there is also a growing vegetarian population for ethical, religious, or health reasons. These are factors that fall under the principle of incorporation, which businesses need to consider when designing a menu, so as to cater to a wide audience with sufficiently diverse options.

Image: Photographed by Melicacy for Hilton Auckland

The theories of “omnivore’s paradox” and “principle of incorporation” provide a useful guideline on how to anticipate consumers’ preferences, and how to develop a menu to meet their expectations. However, these theories have set boundaries for what foods are deemed acceptable in their respective ways. The “omnivore’s paradox” hinders chefs’ freedom of creativity by posing a limit on the level of unfamiliarity involved in a dish. Likewise, chefs have to be aware of what is considered appropriate and inappropriate to their target audience who have conflicting preferences based on aspects such as dietary concerns, religion, culture, and social status, as the “principle of incorporation” divides diners into dissimilar groups. Nevertheless, understanding the “omnivore’s paradox” and “principle of incorporation” can be valuable in chefs' pursuit of customer satisfaction.


Buerk, R. (2012). Fugu: The fish more poisonous than cyanide. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-18065372

Corvo, P. (2015). Food Culture, Consumption and Society. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fischler, C. (1988). Food, self and identity. Social science information, 27(2), 275-292. doi:10.1177/053901888027002005

Fox, N., & Ward, K. (2008). Health, ethics and environment: a qualitative study of vegetarian motivations. Appetite, 50(2), 422-429. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2007.09.007

Mitchell, R., & Hall, C. M. (2003). Consuming tourists: food tourism consumer behaviour. In Hall, C. M., Sharples, L., Mitchel, R., Macionis, N., & Cambourne, B. (Eds.), Food tourism around the world: Development, management and markets (pp. 60-80). Burlington, MA: Elsevier.

Park, C. (1997). Consumption in the Korean wedding ritual: wedding ritual values, consumer needs, and expenditures. Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 18(2), 191-209. doi: 10.1023/A:1024928408262