Pizza (altough not quite a Margarita)

I’ve been promising friends this post for some time, especially those that have eaten in a restaurant with me recently. In the season of good will and consumption, this rule of thumb helps us make better menu choices. But as a decision-making tool, it goes much deeper, helping us (re)discover the real value in things.

The principle is simple: the best value pizza in a restaurant is the one at the top of the list, usually the Margherita.

This realisation first came to me last year at a pizza restaurant by the Canal St Martin in Paris. The 6€ Margherita offered: a delicious and filling meal – the prototypical pizza; a nice warm place to sit; the atmosphere of the restaurant; banter with the waiter; a view over the canal; a small basket of bread and a bottle of tap water; and chilli oil.

The next pizza on the menu was the Fungi. At 7.50€ I was getting everything the Margherita offered plus a chopped mushroom. At 1.50€ that’s a bad value-for-money mushroom. And from there on down – Fiorentina, Vegetarian, Quatro Staggione – the value just keeps on going down.

The cheapest thing on the menu usually gives you the most, the rest are opportunities to spend more money with diminishing returns. (Incidentally, as Tim Harford explains in his book ‘the Undercover Economist’, menus are usually structured in ways to give customers the opportunity to spend as much money as they want to.)

The benefits of the principle

  • By applying the Margarita principle not just to pizza but also drinks and coffee, I was able to have a pizza, a glass of house red and a shot of espresso for 10€ all in.
  • It’s a training in simplicity, which as Thoreau argues in Walden, is the route of happiness.
  • It’s a training in looking for the real value in things.

What about non-linear effects?

My colleague David pointed out to me that the principle may not be applicable if the combination of extra ingredients amounted to a taste that was greater than the sum of it’s parts – a sort of non-linear taste progression.

I concede that this sort of topping alchemy may be possible, but in reality it would have to deliver significant extra value to be anywhere near as valuable as the initial Margherita. Besides, another colleague of mine, who is also Italian, claims the Margarita is the best tasting pizza anyway – so why add anything more?

Broader application

The Margaherita Principle is a sort of mix of the Pareto Principle and the Law of Diminishing returns, and has applications beyond pizza choice. It helps get greater clarity of thought when making decisions.

For example, I was recently agonising over the order in which to publish various blog posts. But then a realised that the greatest value outcome was just to get the post published. There may be some marginal benefit to publicising them in a certain order; however that was much less than the value of just getting the material online and circulated. Worse, the time I was spending worrying about the order to publication was time that I wasn’t spending writing – and I might have ended up publicising nothing at all.

Another example related to the branding of a training course that I am involved with developing. At this stage, we are not sure how the course is going to evolve, and so it was difficult to decide what direction to take the branding. But, applying the Margarita Principe, I realised that the most important thing is to at least get something published, which we could then revisit as started to run and iteratively develop the course.

The fallacy of menu choices

As I write, I realise that we often have less control over our experiences than we think. A restaurant is probably quite a high control scenario: we choose what we want to eat and drink; choose our company; and with care, the topic of conversation; and things usually go to plan. In reality, we often have less control over the projects that we manage than we think. The branding example above illustrates this. It is very hard to know what the best way to describe a training course is until you run it and see how the content evolves in practice. With this sort of thing, the best approach is make quick decisions, see how they work in practice, and then re-evaluate along the way.

In a restaurant situation, this is akin to not ordering your main course until you have finished your starter, and then waiting until later to order dessert. This is decision making on the basis of feedback – literally!

The horror of advanced menu choices

Given all of the above, the worst possible decision-making scenario with regards to menus is when you are sent dinner options for a conference or a corporate meal a month in advance and you have to choose then. How on earth are you going to know what you want to order that far in advance?

In these situations, Margheritas are rarely available, so here I apply the Tiramisu principle: always choose the first option as long as it is vegetarian, and along is it isn’t Tiramisu, which is the food of the devil and should be avoided at all costs.