A friend of mine and I went to The Whole Enchilada (21 Whitney Ave, New Haven, CT) yesterday, a small Mexican restaurant whose ambiance and proclivity to neon lighting belies the quality of food served inside. The menu indicated an intriguing new special, "The Mango Burrito." Since there was no description of this dish, we went up to the counter and asked the proprietor/cook for more details. I just had to mention the phrase "mango burrito" and the guy's eyes lit up. "The Maaaaah-ngo Burrito!" he said excitedly in his accented English, before going on to a full description of it's contents. I was quickly sold on ordering it, with 90% of my decision comimg down to this guy's excitement (he didn't even have to mention what was inside).
In every other restaurant I've been to, when the waiter/waitress reads off the specials I am less than enthused. I think this is so because they show no excitement towards the subject. You get "would you be interested in hearing about the specials?" and, regardless of your answer, you hear this long list of weird dishes, delivered with, at best, a poker face. Not too inspiring. In fact I don't think I've ever ordered the special until yesterday.
The Whole Enchilada experience suggests to me that there is a better way to peddle the specials: restaurant employees should act like they love them. It would definitely work with me. The mango burrito is the running example here but, many other times, after choosing between a few items and being unsure of my choice, hearing from the waiter or waitress that the dish I picked is "oooh, so good" makes me feel good about my choice and probably enhances the rest of my dining experience. Perhaps there's a nice randomized experiment here: randomly prime tables with the "ooh, thats so good, its my favorite dish" and then assess how people feel about the food and service later based on ratings/tips/etc?.
If there are potential gains to be had by inducing customers to order the specials, why aren't these sold more aggressively? Some thoughts:
1) Specials rotate quickly and the staff does not have time to sample them, render judgments over these impossible.
2) Waiters/waitresses are not as invested in the specials in the same way the cooks are. Remember, The Whole Enchilada guy was actually the cook, and his love of the mango burrito can likely be classified as pride in his creation.
3) There are no returns to the waiters/waitresses for pushing the special over the regular menu in terms of tips. The restaurant may profit from selling the specials, though, which suggests incentive incompatibility.
4) Marginal profits from sales are not very high for the specials (i.e., I've relaxed the original premise of the question), and the real benefit of having specials comes from reputation, social network effects and signaling ("restaurants that have specials must be really good"). In this case, the customer needs to be told there are specials, but aggressive sales of these have no additional benefit.
By the way, the mango burrito was damn good. Go eat one if you are in the neighborhood.