At one Chicago restaurant, Alinea, a serving of steak would weigh 2 ounces or so. 5 or 6 bites and you are finished. But then, you would still have 22 other courses to consume.
Asked why he serves so small an amount, Chef Grant Achatz said, “Diminishing returns.” Given a 12-ounce steak, diners start enthusiastically downing the first bite and the second. Then though, enjoyment wanes until they are eating robotically. By preventing the onset of diminishing returns, Achatz enables his patrons consistently to savor every morsel.
You might enjoy hearing Grant Achatz interviewed here by NPR’s Terry Gross.
The Economic Lesson
Typically describing the limitations of mass production, diminishing returns refers to less extra output. For example, on one acre of land, if, one by one, you add farmers and shovels, at first your productivity will increase. Eventually though, because of crowding, extra output drops and then disappears.
More broadly applied, diminishing returns can also refer to the extra pleasure we get from repeatedly performing an activity. For pizza or steak, we love those first few bites. The 37th bite, though, provides much less extra, if any, joy. Our total pleasure goes up by less and less as we eat more and more.