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Emoji on Restaurant Menus: Why Use Words When Smiley Faces Exist?

Why some businesses are adopting all-pictorial menus

At the pop-up concept restaurant the Little Yellow Door in London’s Notting Hill, millennial-friendly smartphone culture is at the center of the meal. Diners place a reservation through the mobile messaging app WhatsApp (or the old-fashioned way, if they prefer), then sit down at a table where they have the option of ordering off a special emoji menu. Unlike the usual trendy restaurant menu — with text-heavy descriptors like "omelette with cage-free eggs" or "brioche burger with house made sauce" — the menu at Little Yellow Door offers dishes spelled out in emoji, like "cow face," "baguette," and "rocket ship."

"Look, that’s kind of the point — you have to spend a little bit of time to work it out."

"Some people pick it up straight away, and some people find it a little bit trickier," said Kamran Dehdashti, Little Yellow Door’s owner. "One of the things we debated was whether we make it super easy, and we were like, ‘Look, that’s kind of the point — you have to spend a little bit of time to work it out.’"

There’s a familiar restaurant scene: Potential customers peering at a menu hung in a restaurant window to see what the venue has to offer. At many restaurants, that menu often features an extra ladling of adjectives like "artisanal," "housemade," or "rustic." These buzzwords, used ad nauseam in the food industry, help justify the extra $4 you might spend on a $18 burger. Dan Jurafsky, a linguistics professor at Stanford, described this phenomenon his book The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, writing that "every increase of one letter in the average length of words describing a dish is associated with an increase of 69 cents in the price of that dish." High-class restaurants, he argues, also "[give] us images of the ranch... and [allude] to the farmer’s market" in helping make their sales.

A number of restaurant and food delivery services, however, have recently taken it upon themselves to go against the grain of using concrete, textual descriptors; in their place are emojis, pictographic images that have become increasingly popular in mobile communications to represent a phrase or an idea. Like the Little Yellow Door, delivery startup Fooji and international pizza delivery service Domino’s have begun to use emoji as a method of communicating culinary desires. Earlier this year, the Sunken Harbor Club, a tiki-themed pop-up bar at Brooklyn’s Fort Defiance bar, unveiled one of the first-ever emoji drink menus. Select Pizza Hut locations in the UK rolled out their own full-fledged emoji menus for the week leading up to World Emoji Day.

Emoji menu

By using emoji, restaurants and food industry businesses have adapted to the modern habit of communicating with a minimalist, playful, and at times, confusing language. The strategy flies in the face of using fluffy, vacuous words to make stomachs rumble, so what’s the impetus behind these restaurants’ pictographic language change-up [insert questioning face emoji]?

Emojis have existed for over two decades, albeit largely confined to Japan. In 1998, Shigetaka Kurita was working for DoCoMo, a large Japanese mobile communication company. At the time, pagers were the main form of cellular communication, but the amount of space available to send a message was limited. Kurita wanted to provide users a way to express more in the limited space, but by using as little data as possible. The emoji was thus born out of the idea to develop a one-character "code," whereby users could send images that would show up as an icon on another person’s device.

"Emoji make your brain think in different ways, in terms of symbols. The novelty, of course, is what’s fun, too."

Due to their small size of 12 by 12 pixels, DoCoMo was unable to copyright its pictographic invention. So, in 2011, Apple included an emoji keyboard in its iOS 5 update, causing emoji to burst onto the international scene. Quickly, the tiny images replaced emoticons as smartphone users’ preferred pictographic language of choice. After their adoption into Unicode in 2010, emoji began popping up on other phones, as well.

Emoji now range from yellow smiley faces depicting a variety of emotions to transportation vehicles to flags. They have become commonly used to communicate ideas without spelling them out, and many even have developed secondary or tertiary meanings among certain individuals (see: pet names, flame emoji meaning something is "lit," maple leaf being used in place of marijuana). Their popularity reached a momentous peak in 2015 when the Oxford Dictionary listed the "face with tears of joy" emoji as its "word" of the year. One of the more recent emoji updates by Unicode even expanded the number of food emojis by 38 icons, including the highly requested avocado and bacon icons, furthering the hypothesis that restaurants will eventually have even more room to play.

At the Little Yellow Door, the emoji menu offers no English explanations for what "cow face" "baguette" with "mushroom" "chestnut" "rocketship" means. While a cow face is understood as "beef," and it’s clear that "cow face" + "baguette" means "beef sandwich," it’s not obvious whether this means a customer is ordering a "chopped steak sandwich" or an "experimental meatloaf dressed with a gochujang vinaigrette sandwich." (It actually translates to "a seared steak roll with truffle mayo, caramelized onions, and rocket," that last emoji cleverly referring to the term for a warm arugula salad.)

Tyler Schnoebelen, a linguistics Ph.D. from Stanford and founder of Idibon, a text-analytics company, noted that places like the Little Yellow Door and Sunken Harbor take advantage of the fact that emojis can have multiple meanings depending on the context. "It’s drawing upon the delight people have with crossword puzzles," Schnoebelen said. "[Emoji] make your brain think in different ways, in terms of symbols. The novelty, of course, is what’s fun, too."

According to Dehdashti, the concept has been well-received by customers for that exact reason. "It’s very laid back," he said, referring to the restaurant’s mood. "It’s like going to someone’s house, so actually breaking that barrier with your waiter so it’s not like a formal, ‘What would you like to eat?’ It’s actually more fun. Often our waiter will sit down at the seat next to the customers and be like, ‘Oh, this is what we’re doing?’ and ‘Cool, have you worked this one out?’"

Diners at Little Yellow Door can also order using emoji via WhatsApp

While emoji are becoming slowly embraced by pop-ups and concept restaurants, Schnoebelen noted it’s not necessarily a response to the overly florid menus of today. Vagueness in menu description works both ways: "On the very fanciest menus, you don’t have adjectives," Schnoebelen said. "You don’t need to tell people ‘this is delicious.’ You just say the ingredients." Jurafsky agrees, writing in his book that the minimalist text of "our modern fancy menus is light and terse, with no cheap filler adjectives of endless protestations about what’s ‘real.’"

But as Schnoebelen notes, the simplicity of emoji don’t quite function in the same way. "It’s hard to imagine the French Laundry or anything in that class having emoji on the menu because that would be very weird and break their brand," he said. Instead, emojis in the dining context project a different kind of lightness. "The menu [at the Little Yellow Door] does steer away from traditional stuffy ways of ordering, allowing a great flow of conversation between our staff and our clients, helping to break down that barrier you often have at stuffy restaurants where the staff, are well, ‘just the staff,’" Dehdashti said.

Elsewhere, emoji are being used not as a marker for "fun," but as attempts to solve (real or imagined) problems associated with ordering food. Fooji, a Lexington, KY-based delivery startup founded in 2015 by Gregg Morton and Erik Zamudio, saw emoji's potential to answer the anxiety that comes from trying to decide what to eat when ordering from Seamless or GrubHub.

Through a partnership with the aforementioned companies, Morton and Zamudio created a system where customers could merely tweet an emoji to receive a meal delivery. Fooji then uses an algorithm to determine the highest-rated restaurant in the customer’s location with that item, and then delivers it to the customer’s door. To keep things simple price-wise, all meals cost a total of $15, regardless of the order. "It really is food roulette," Morton said. "We don't control it. It's based on what the algorithm's gonna send you and what."

Fooji has since expanded to offer other "fan experiences," including other forms of retail delivery with big brands, but its main demographic is pretty obvious: millennials. Morton acknowledged some criticisms about the food delivery component: that the customer might not be thrilled with the meal they receive or they might be unable to eat it due to dietary restrictions. Still, Morton displayed some optimism given Unicode’s continual expansion of emoji food options, as well as research into ways that customers could string emojis together to create clearer, or more complex, requests.

Pizza Hut Emoji Menu Courtesy Pizza Hut

Meanwhile, delivery restaurants have long acknowledged the potential of incorporating emoji language onto their menus. Domino’s rolled out its Tweet-to-Order system in May 2015. After customers set up an account with Domino’s, which requires their address, credit card information, the pizza order they’d like delivered, and their Twitter handle, they can tweet a pizza to Domino’s. Ideally, the pizza will be at the customer’s door in an hour.

Kate Turnbull, director of digital marketing at Domino’s, explained that using the pizza emoji as an icon for the Tweet-to-Order campaign would allow it to become an advertisement to Domino’s consumers. This is similar to Taco Bell’s campaign for the inclusion of a taco emoji, which in theory would create an association in customers’ minds between the emoji and the restaurant. "[Using emoji] speaks to advertising in general," said Turnbull. "If we look at the channels we have — emails, print, billboards — you have to keep it simple. People are so busy. They don't have time. Maybe they give you one to three seconds, so visuals are often the best way to go."

Ultimately, emoji’s adoption by the food industry is still in the early stages, with restaurants and startups participating through trial-and-error, seeking a balance between what comes across as too gimmicky and what has actually garnered a following. Still, in participating in this technological language transformation, individuals like Dehdashti are maintaining a sense of light-heartedness akin to tweeting stream of "flame" emojis.

"We’re not trying to revolutionize anything," Dehdashti said. "We’re just trying to have a bit of fun."

Matt Sedacca is a writer based in New York City. Esra Erol is Eater's social media manager.
Editor: Erin DeJesus

· All Emoji Coverage [E]