How to Get Restaurants to Cook You Foods that Don’t Exist on the Menu (And More)

It’s All About Speaking in Their Operational Language

One of my favorite hobbies back in school was getting restaurants to cook me foods that didn’t exist on the menu.

I would get cafés to make me cups of matcha gelato and new concoctions of coffee and fruit beverages. My crowning achievement though? Getting a burger joint to make me a crepe.

This all became possible after I learned a simple strategy: tapping into someone’s “operational language”. I’ll explain with a failure, a triumph and a closing note on how this strategy works even beyond the walls of a kitchen.

Here’s What Not to Do

I walked into a convenience store inside the campus gym one day after a workout. Despite being called Quenchers, the menu overflowed with grotesque fruit protein shakes. I realized I didn’t want anything on their menu, I just wanted a pure melon smoothie. Since this store had a fruit bar and blenders, I figured I’d ask for it — nicely. It worked once before with another cashier at this store, so I gave it another go.

Me: “Hi, I don’t see this on the menu, but would it be at all possible to get a melon smoothie?”
Cashier: *obviously annoyed* “No, that’s not on the menu.”

He clearly thought I was crazy. What was going on? The store had all the resources you’d need to make a melon smoothie. In fact, another cashier had obliged the other day! This cashier seemed annoyed — maybe he just didn’t like being creative. Maybe he was having a bad day and going on a power trip just to feel the satisfaction of denying someone something they want. Before I performed too deep of a psychoanalysis, I pressed on. To be honest, I was a bit annoyed myself.

Me: “I don’t understand. All you’d have to do is blend a bunch of melons. The cashier from Monday was able to do it.”
Cashier: *even more annoyed* “Look, we don’t do that. It’s not on the menu. I can’t ring you up for it.”


The Takeaway

It all made sense now. The concept of a “melon smoothie” existed in the English language, but it didn’t exist in the “operational language” of his line of work. Was the cashier refusing because he lacked the ability of making a melon smoothie? Obviously not. The true barrier was logistical. His cash register was configured to take in specifically programmed inputs to output prices on a receipt, and “melon smoothie” wasn’t one of them. It was 4:15pm on a Wednesday, and by asking for a “melon smoothie” I was just making his life difficult.

Here’s What You Should Do

So next time, I spoke to the cashier in his operational language. I worded my request to align with the input function of his tools.

I went to the fruit bar and filled up a plastic container with a bunch of melon cubes. Normally, the store priced their fruit by weight, so I set it on top of the scale that linked to the register.

Me: Hi, I’ll get these melons, but could you just throw these into the blender with a little ice and water?
Cashier: “Uh..sure.”

He rang up “melons” at 30 oz. and made me a melon smoothie.

From that moment on, I got all the melon, strawberry, papaya and blueberry smoothies I wanted. Once I learned the operational language of restaurants, I unleashed my power. Over the next couple years, all of the cooks on campus were like my personal chefs.

The Moment of Truth

After iterating on beverages and small snacks all over campus, I decided to go in for the big kill: Pitchforks.

Pitchforks—the 24-hour diner-esque burger joint near Keohane Quad at Duke, notorious for its greasy, unhealthy but delicious dishes.

And I, Elizabeth Kim, was going to get a savory french crepe from there.

Me: “Could you make a really thin pancake and put in some grilled chicken, pesto and mozzarella? Also, if you could wrap and fold the pancake to keep everything in place, that’d be great.”

With this approach, I’ve found 9 times out of 10, the cashiers would be amused and enter in the ingredients item by item to ring you up a total. The cooks would have fun doing something new for once. Plus, everyone would remember you, and I got to make some new friends with the staff.

And this is the story of how I got a crepe from a burger joint. Was it called a crepe on the receipt? Of course not! But was the outcome a crepe? Exactly as planned.

When we see opportunity in the ordinary, our initial instinct is to propose an entirely new “dish”.

If people don’t understand they’ll shut you out because you’re making their already busy lives more complex.

Rather, learn to speak in their operational language.

Every restaurant has a set menu, which makes us think those are the only options. In reality, every restaurant has the same basic ingredients that can create tens of thousands of unique dishes. All it takes is a vision for a new dish and the operational language to communicate how to get there.

Taking “Operational Languages” Beyond Restaurants

Tapping into the “operational language” of a restaurant to get new food creations is fun to do, but the core of this process works as a metaphor that applies far beyond the walls of a kitchen.

Life can often feel like you’re asking a restaurant to create foods that don’t exist on their menu. Whether it’s getting a stubborn toddler to brush their teeth every night or motivating employees at your new startup, you need to be able to influence a person’s behavior. Before you repeat what you’ve been telling them to do, pause. Consider people’s “operational language”. Does your request connect with their personal incentives? Align what you say with how they would describe their goals and processes in their own words.

People are often like restaurants with the right ingredients for an endless number of dishes but set menus. They may carry limitless potential but not even realize it until you suggest new combinations in their “operational language”.

Where else in your life can you find operational ingredients to work with?

Artwork produced w/ Christine Wei, my metaphor partner-in-crime