Hands down, the coolest part about being an “insider” is the perks. Toronto native Lawrence Longo realized this quickly when he moved to Los Angeles 14 years ago and noticed all of his friends ordered off the menu.
“I had friends who were celebrities or trendsetters who would go to dinner and order something, and I’d be like, ‘There are 10 things on this menu, and that’s not one of them,’” he remembers. “They’d joke around and say, ‘I’m in the know, and you’re not.’”
So he started making notes, collecting his friends’ off-menu orders and their origins. For the next seven years.
“And this was before cellphones,” Longo adds. “I was writing those secret menu items down on paper in pen.”
Before he knew it, he had a list of more than 200 and decided to shop the idea around to Hollywood. The concept was bought, but when a TV show didn’t pan out, Longo decided to turn his database of knowledge into an app.
“It didn’t even start as a monetary thing,” he admits. “It was more so I could tell the world about it. Friends were texting me, asking for secret menu items at places they were at all the time, so I thought I could create a program that publishes them all so people could know. Then it started getting downloads and investors started calling and people started writing about it, so I created a business strategy around it.”
Today the app is available on Android and iOS, covering 25 North American cities and their off-menu secrets. Its complementary Instagram accounthas more than 20,000 followers, with a goal to grow user-generated tips through social media. Menu items range from fettuccine carbonara from Strega Waterfront in Boston to “calamars” at Bistro St. Tropez in Philly to Dominque Ansel’s ice cream sandwich in New York. There’s even a special section dedicated to the secret menu items at In-and-Out Burger, potentially the godfather of all secret menu secrets.
But where do secret menu items come from? Longo has some theories.
“One way is that chefs are cool and want to create secret items for people that are ‘in the know’,” he says. “But then it’s also that chefs get tired of making the same things over and over again, and want to change up the menus, but customers love the menus as they are. So they create a secret item.”
Or sometimes a customer creates one for them. “Sometimes you’ll see someone who ordered something that combines one menu item with another and you’ll order it and word of mouth will just spread the idea,” Longo says. “It used to take years for [an item like that] to pick up, but now with social media, the word spreads even faster.”
So on the flip side: If everyone’s an insider … is anyone an insider? Longo says that’s the wrong way to look at it.
“I’ve been going to In-and-Out Burger for 14 years and every time I order something ‘animal style,’ I feel like I’m part of the cool club,” he explains. “[For chefs], they want the business. They’re cooking things in the kitchen that are different, and they want everyone to know their secret menu items. It makes everyone feel special, and who wouldn’t want their diners to feel special when they’re eating their food?”