I received a message the other day from a friend and reader of the blog who is not in the business. She recounted going out to eat and asking for a few extras. When the bill came it was filled with minor charges for each of the items she requested. Her concern was not that the charges were there, but that they weren’t mentioned in advance. She wondered what I thought the protocol was here.
The answer is not really a simple one. There are no hard and fast rules because there is a fundamental lack misunderstanding between restaurant owners and guests that servers are forced into the middle of. Restaurant owners feel that they have priced meals for value and if you ask for something extra, the costs should be passed along. Guests believe that they can make the same item for less at home so owner’s profit margins are sufficient enough to give away the extras. Servers are forced to defend both sides while staying loyal both to the owners that gave them a job and the guests who pay them.
The guest and owner perspectives will be addressed separately. Today I want to look into how to best handle this as a server. Servers face a variety of potential responses to informing a guest something will cost extra. Some guests will begrudgingly agree, but complain long after you have left the table and until they have signed the credit card slip. Others will be insulted that you brought up the concept as if they were too cheap to pay for it. Still others will ask you how much it will cost and leave you as negotiator between the owner and the guest. None of these outcomes are desirable.
I have spent years trying to determine the best way to handle these situations. The line that I draw is between requests made while ordering and those made after. When the guest requests extras while ordering, they are in a mode where they know they are spending. At this point it is easy to mention the additional charge. I will use the line:
“The chef/manager will charge a little extra for that.
Is that alright?”
The more difficult part is mentioning that the extras will be charged for. Owners and guests perceive refills of non-alcoholic beverages and extra dressing often very differently. This has to be addressed more subtly and in a way that does not shift the thoughts of the guest away from the meal and to money. The highlight of the dining experience is getting to eat. Do not crush this moment by reverting back to discussions of money. Instead, I use a line like this:
“I will have to order that from the kitchen/bar. Is that alright?”
These lines meet the happy medium of not focusing on money, but informing the guest. Most of the time this will end the discussion. If the guest asks why they are being charged for one item or another, it is important you have a good answer. The simplest answer is the true one. Some restaurants encourage you to get a manager involved at this point. I disagree because I feel it adds extra focus to an issue and turns it into a situation. Instead try this simple line:
“We try to keep prices low for everyone by only charging for what people want. Some restaurants build in the price of all the extras and charge everyone the same. We believe it is more fair to only charge people for what they actually want.”
This demonstrates that you are not trying to charge for everything, but instead charge as little as possible. This is a true statement and one that should appease both owners and guests. Owners would prefer to charge for everything and guests would prefer to pay for nothing. This is how you explain the compromise. If this line does not work, it is time to get a manager involved.
As a server you should always try to be fair. This issue is difficult because there are such radically different opinions on what “fair” means. The key as a server is to avoid being perceived as the person responsible for making such decisions. You must support your employers, but it is also fair to point out that you are just an employee. Keeping guests and owners both happy is not easy, but it is vital to a happy wallet.
On an unrelated note, I recently added a new blog to the blog roll. Crazy Waiter is a blog that I have been reading for a while. He posts a great deal of thought provoking material from around the web. Always a good read. If you have a moment, show him some love and check out his blog. If you are a server blogger, say hi in the comments below and you too might end up in the blogroll.
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