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Sep 24, 2007 06:22 AM

Charged for things you thought were comp?

A recent thread reminded me of the time at Joe's Crab Shack where a server came by the table shortly after we were seated and before we were ready to order, and asked if we'd like a basket of hush puppies. We said sure, thinking this was comparable to the bread that's often served with a meal. You guessed it: when the check arrived, there was a charge. Just one more thing to hate about this substandard chain. Anyone have other cautionary tales to share?

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  1. LOL that's why I almost always ask, "is that included?" when the waiter offers me anything in addition to my meal. Hasn't happened to me recently, but mostly happens with drinks when I assume the free refill.

    1. I seem to recall it happening one time with salad at a chain steak place but can't remember which one unfortunately. We had placed our order and answered lots of questions so were not really paying attention to the salad question. The server said "Would you like a tossed salad or a caesar salad with your meal?" We assumed it came with the steak. It didn't. Oh well.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Hooda_Guest

        Sounds like Outback. Their sides will double the bill in a hurry.

        1. re: yayadave

          It very well could have been and we were all at fault. We had not paid enough attention to the menu and she was rather vague about it. She wanted to sell a couple of salads-mission accomplished!

      2. it's all about add ons, if the server words the question cleverly you could think it is comped. It is different to ask, would you like to order an side salad, or what dressing would you like on your side salad?

        Isn't it about expectation? If a server says would you like coffee with your dessert you wouldnt for one moment expect the coffee to be free. It's also about reading the menu carefully, if the header says comes with side salad and choice of potatoes then you know that a side of brocolli is not going to be comped.

        This is a similar problem to the price of specials, ask and you will get your answer. Don't assume!

        1 Reply
        1. re: smartie

          As an ex-waiter, I can tell you this is exactly the technique we were trained to use at the chain steak house where I worked. Management was always after us to raise the "average cheque" per customer, and although salad bar, bread, and baked potato were included with the meal, sauteed mushrooms or the vegetable of the day were extra. So, after we'd taken the entree details, we were told to ask first "Do you want butter, sour cream or both on your baked potato?", and THEN ask "And would you like sauteed mushrooms or (vegetable)?" Now, it clearly stated on the menu that these were extra, but by this time, most people had closed their menus and it was surprising how many simply went along. Sneaky, yes, but I would only see a customer twice in my lifetime at most, whereas I had to see my manager every day.

        2. Jfood's basic rule of thumb:

          - if the server says "would you like?" it will show up on the bill. "would you like" usually means "would you pay"

          If it is comped, first the server will say something to the effect..."the chef would like you to try..." or "that comes with..."

          when in doubt just ask. better than not asking, assuming it's comped and then seeingthe bill.

          6 Replies
          1. re: jfood

            Yeah, now that you mention it most places just bring the bread without asking, so the fact that the server said something should have been a red flag that this wasn't a version of the complimentary bread custom. I must say it still wouldn't occur to me to ask if I'm going to be charged when a server just sets a basket of bread on the table, though.

            1. re: Emm

              If a server sets something down without asking, I agree, I'd not only think it is included as a part of dining there, but I'd say something should a charge show up later. Have to be careful about bottled water as the one major exception to this....some places have bottles already on the table and some places have servers come over bottle in hand....they're not included unless you specifically know otherwise (The French Laundry, I think, now includes bottled water as a part of the meal).

              In this case, though, you just got stuck in a good sales tactic (good in the moment in that they sold some hushpuppies....bad in that you're left with a bad feel for the whole thing and rightly so, really).

            2. re: jfood

              You're so right, jfood. TT always asks because things like bread, olives, and even chips and salsa in some places are charged for.

              Some sneaky restaurants will give you the first round of something free, but then charge for extra's; but you of course don't know this as you happily much through your third basket of chips. Grrrrr!


              1. re: TexasToast

                Especially after you've gotten a buzz on.

                Another revelation thanks to this site.

              2. re: jfood

                Point well taken, but "would you like" is highly intonation-dependent. Hard to do on the keyboard, but "would you like a BAKED POTATO or FRIES" is worlds different than "would you like a baked potato(?) or fries(?)" The first implies that the customer needs to choose between two options, one of which is included in the meal. The second implies that the customer may add an item that is not included.

                As you noted below (in the "asterisk menu") post, many meals come with a choice of sides. Ordering at one of my regular haunts can take on aspects of defending a doctoral dissertation. Green salad or ceasar? If green, what kind of dressing? Minestrone soup or clam chowder? Baked potato, fries, or mashed? And all this stuff is included with the meal.

                Ultimately, it is up to the customer and the server to work together to avoid miscommunication. And occasionally even the best-intentioned people misunderstand each other. Stuff happens.

                What's offensive to me is when a restaurant tries to upsell its custmers using misleading techniques. And there are a few restaurants, mostly chains in my experience, that appear to do just that. I don't know how the OP's server at Joe's Crab Shack was trained, but you can bet your bottom dollar some marketing hack back at the corporate HQ has done studies to figure out how to maximize the number of customers who order hush puppies at the beginning of the meal. And the best way to do that is to have a good percentage of the customers believe it's a comp item.

                1. re: alanbarnes

                  Well, after this thread on comps and the one on the price of specials, you can bet my antennae will waaaaay be up on both items.

                  Chips, hush puppies, baskets of bread, sheesh, is nothing sacred?

              3. Incidentally, my rule of thumb is, if I like the sound of it, it's best to assume I have to pay for it.

                I'll admit; I'm a SINK (single income no kids) so I have a bit more disposable income than most, but the only time when I give pause to an up-sell is when someone mentions TRUFFLES. Other than that, charge me / don't charge me, I like what I like and if I really do like it or think it's of good value, I'll come back for repeat business.

                That's something any manager would want.

                19 Replies
                1. re: SauceSupreme

                  Repeating myself, but in a Vermont restaurant with a big crowd, the first baskets of bread were included in the meal. When more bread was brought, there was a $6. charge (I believe) for each succeeding basket of bread.

                  1. re: dolores

                    i could see some sleazy practice like that in a touristy area
                    but i'd think someting like that would kill a resto that depended
                    on a local reputation and repeat business.

                    if i was sure of my facts [100% sure the price wasnt disclosed, 100%
                    sure it was $6 charge for bread], i'd certainly drop the name of the resto.

                    1. re: psb

                      As a server, I have the same story as the person above. I tried hard to say the word "ADD" as a clue/to be fair. You are definitely pressured to upsell small extras to get your check average up, as I've mentioned before, but I tried to use the word "add" to make it clear it was not included. It's very tricky for the customer. For example, at the steak place where I worked, *some* entrees came with both a salad and a side, and some just came with a side, and if you add a salad it's extra. I think it's unreasonable to expect the customer to read the fine print on every section and remember that if they get this it comes with 2 things but if they get that it comes with 1. So if customer 1 ordered something that came with 2 things I'd just ask what kind of side and what kind of dressing would they like on their salad. If customer 2 ordered something that didn't come with a salad, I'd say, "would you like to add a salad with that?" In general, I hated the upselling all the time and tried instead to judge when I thought it might work/be accepted instead of pushing it on every single table, which is probably why my check averages weren't #1 in the store.

                      1. re: rockandroller1

                        I wonder why a restaurant presumes that I would pay for something that wasn't included if they didn't indicate it? Of course it's 'caveat emptor' out there, but if the print on the menu doesn't SAY 'all entrees come with salad or pasta (red sauce) or salad and starch, then of COURSE I'd ask. Sadly, I also now assume that when a server asks 'would you like to add', that there's a charge for the 'add-on'. The worst offenders are the thousand dollars for a filet mignon steak places that don't include a salad or a potato for that price. Obviously, I try to stay away from them. However, if they DID manage to pull a fast one on me, they surely wouldn't get me to pay for it and it would be the last time I'd go there.

                        I applaud you, rockandroller1, for indicating that you hate the 'upselling' -- what a disgusting concept. I still can't get over the low wages that servers are paid, just can't.

                        As to the restaurant in Vermont, I was one of a large group and so didn't see the check. It was last year and so I can be absolutely sure that the price was $6. I also know that I didn't pay attention when I saw the menu, so I'm not sure it was disclosed. Given that it was remarked upon by the person who chose to do the tabulating, I would imagine it wasn't revealed. If not part of a group, I would have made a scene, of course.

                        Interestingly, I'll be going back this year. If I can, I'll try to swing the choice to this restaurant again, just to verify the facts.

                        1. re: dolores

                          1. in the case of the $6 bread, i dont think i'd call that upselling
                          but a deceptive practice, since there is such a strong norm that
                          bread is free. you arent so much being pressured into spending
                          more than you were planing, but you didnt realize what you were
                          spending. so there was no pressure and no decision/consent.

                          2. ms. dolores: i'm sure your read of the situation is accurate but
                          i only added the "if i were sure" disclaimers because you yourself
                          added the "i believe". i certainly understand how things unfold
                          differently with larger groups.

                          it's amazing what some of the "teflons" in tourist areas can get away with.
                          i seem to remember an $8 cannoli in fisherman's wharf. "take the gun,
                          leave the cannoli."

                          1. re: psb

                            You're right, psb, and I just had a 'doh' moment. In a bit, I will call the place and ask them.

                            Just as, on topic, I found out that Mexican Corner in New Rochelle charges for their chips. The salsa is free but they charge for the chips. I called them and was told, quite happily, that oh yes, it's $1.50 for the small and $2.25 for the large portion. For CHIPS?

                            Amazing. Meanwhile, down the block is Little Mexican Cafe, whom I also called and who does not, rightfully so, charge for chips.

                            Don't these places KNOW that there are now internet foodie sites? Sheesh.

                            1. re: dolores

                              Okie doke, psb, I just called. They -- Skunk Hollow Tavern in Hartland VT -- said that it's noted on the menu that 'all breads are made on the premises' and that there is NO gratis bread. All bread baskets are four dollars each.

                              Good to know, if the group goes back, since NO one was paying attention last year.

                              If it were just me, of course, I wouldn't go back.

                              1. re: dolores

                                We have a couple of places that try that w/chips and salsa. Or it's free if you order guac,queso. I think part of it is to put a little heat on the customer in front of his date. Add hipster arrogance to it and I'm less likely to return as a first choice. Funny thing is the smaller and less expensive the restaurant is the more likely that it's free. Tip: If it ain't free don't ask. I can read a menu.

                            2. re: dolores

                              I actually think a really good server can read people at the table to see if there's a good opportunity to offer an extra in that it might be something the person might enjoy. If you get really good at reading people, a skill which I consider myself to have, you get good at feeling out who might actually *enjoy* their steak a little more with onions or mushrooms or both (for example, I am one, and I often forget to ask or am not clear that's available, so in this case when it's offered, I always take it, knowing it's extra) or a loaded baked potato instead of plain - especially if I know the restaurant's potato is otherwise rather bland and uninspiring and that loaded it's pretty good - for example, they use real bacon for bacon bits, etc., then I would suggest it to someone who seems like they come a lot and enjoy the food at the restaurant. But your elderly or families with small children are just not expecting these kinds of extra charges and I for one loathed having to offer them routinely for fear of retribution either via a mgr for a low(er) check average or via a secret shopper report, where you'd be dinged for not offering an upsell at each strategic point.

                            3. re: rockandroller1

                              Ahhh but you have integrity. At the end of the day, a lot more valuable than the extra $...:-}

                          2. re: dolores

                            I've worked in a place where this was the policy. However, there had been so many problems with customers who assumed free bread was free unlimited bread that servers were instructed to emphasize that the extra basket would have to be paid for, BEFORE they brought it.

                            1. re: mordacity

                              Wow, I find that astounding, mordacity. It reminds me of a very good restaurant that obviously fell on hard times and started charging for their potato with an entree. Previously it had been included. The last time I went there, I became upset at this new policy and got my potato for free. Yes, it was the principle.

                              Shortly thereafter, they closed.

                              Now, would it NOT have been smarter to raise the price of the entree to include the sudden extra cost of that potato?

                              Just as the Mexican restaurant in another thread could have raised the price of their meals to include the chips they charge for.

                              Just as the Vermont restaurant I talked about could have raised the price of their entrees to include their 'made-in-house' bread.

                              Yes, I would pay the increased prices if I liked the restaurants. It appalls me that restaurants aren't smart enough to do as I stated. I don't get it.

                              1. re: dolores

                                Because charging for the bread or chips or potato individually allows people who'd rather not have them choose not to pay the higher price for the "included" item they didn't want to begin with.

                                My only concern is that the restaurant is clear about it's policies and do what it sounds like the restaurant in mordacity's example eventually learned to do: make clear that there is a charge.

                                1. re: ccbweb

                                  Have you seen the price of steaks at steak houses where the potato is extra?

                                  Sounds good, but I doubt that's the idea. Hasn't bread been included with a meal since the dawn of man? Suddenly it's an 'extra'?

                                  Again, nah, it's greed behind it.

                                  1. re: dolores

                                    And it's not "greed" for the customer who doesn't want to pay for something? Restaurants are businesses. They're designed to make money. To the extent that that's greedy, sure, it's all about greed.

                                    Of course, one could argue that increasing the prices for everyone who walks in the door so that they can continue to "include" something for some diners is also about greed. As is increasing the prices to account for increased prices from their suppliers.

                                    Bread is often included, but it's not cheap and costs the restaurants that serve it, especially if it's good quality bread, a fair bit of money. If one chooses to charge for it rather than increase the other prices, that's a fine option. You have your's too, don't eat there. That's why I say that as long as the policy is made known, it's fine with me.

                                    1. re: ccbweb

                                      Not pay for something eaten or not pay for something that was formerly free? There is a difference. Of course, if I ordered something I would pay for it. If I didn't know there was a charge for it, since the policy had been changed and wasn't noted, I would argue about it. If it were noted, I wouldn't order it.

                                      If a restaurant that I frequented suddenly started charging for bread -- now which restaurant is that hard up? -- no, I wouldn't go back.


                                      1. re: dolores

                                        Fair enough. I agree about something that is charged for but not didn't get the chance to agree to buy it at that point and you'd rightly ask about that when you saw the bill.

                                        I disagree about the suddenly charging for things, but that's a point of difference that's got nothing to do with anything but for the fact that we disagree :)

                                2. re: dolores

                                  Raising the overall cost of meals to defray the cost of formerly free extras. Hmmm....

                                  As I read through this, I recall the sweep of Atkins across the nation. Granted, these people are typically not your nickel-and-dimers; once a friend goes Atkins on me, I can no longer afford to feed them. We do movies or music instead. But they can be sanctimonious. "I don't eat bread or potatoes. Can't you take them off my bill? Maybe just give me an extra side of bacon instead." Those who crunch numbers will know that home-smoked thick-cut bacon will be more expensive for the restaurant to produce than a baked potato or 2 slices of bread.

                                  I also recall many waiter rants regarding people who eat lots of the freebies: bread, chips etc. and then order the cheapest thing on the menu ... to share with their companion. Having a limit on free bread/chip refills may limit that kind of grazing.

                                  Thirdly, things that are on the table aren't even necessarily free. We've heard lots about the bottled water rant. In Europe, you may be charged for the bread you eat from the basket which was waiting for you on the table.

                                  Finally, and I know this argument fits in elsewhere. It can get very tricky to walk the tasteful fine line between upselling with no disclosure and saying "Honey, the refill on your soda is going to set you back another 1.89; are you sure that you want that?" Rockandroller certainly has a classy approach for which she should be applauded using the word "add" when new charges will appear on a bill. Some people would say that it isn't explicit enough, while others would say that it is a tiresome reminder that "Yes, we'll agree to pay more for the blue cheese dressing."

                                  1. re: dolores

                                    Here's one reason: I'm diabetic. I try to avoid starches (bread, potatoes, rice) as they raise my blood sugar dramatically. So, I don't want to pay extra to have bread/potatoes/rice added to my meal, when I'm not going to eat them. I'd rather pay for a salad or vegetables. And, with an estimated 1 in 10 North Americans suffering from diabetes, I have a lot of company.

                                    However, I do agree that this doesn't release restaurants from their obligation to be clear about what's added, and what's included (especially when the fine is print is so fine, and the lighting is so bad).