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May 18, 2008 10:58 AM

The weakest drinks, smallest sizes, cheapest ingredients … bye-bye bread and butter, hello reformulated cheese

This week Good Morning America and some local news shows ran a segment about what restaurants are doing to cut costs rather than raise prices. A lot of it relies on trickery and some is out and out fraud.

Can’t find the story online but some of what I remember

- serving catfish when the menu says grouper
- serving an 8oz steak though the menu says 10 oz
- charging for bread and butter
- using lightweight forks so the food seems heavier
- reformulating cheese mixes to use less expensive cheese
- using smaller plates so portions look bigger
- revising menus so the pricier items pop out

While searching for that show, I came across this article

Sneaky restaurant tricks: Ten to watch out for

It mentions some of the above like cutting portion size, but adds
- subbing margarine for butter in recipes
- cutting back on freshness (fewer deliveries per week)
- recycling (look for more bread pudding, home-made croutons, etc)
- pouring weaker drinks (and look for fewer complementary pours)

Yet some restaurants seem to be going a more honorable route like growing their own veggies, baking their own bread, rewarding employees for being less wasteful and buying smarter. I think this article may be by a regular Chowhound poster.

Swallowing higher costs

Anyway, be aware that changes are happening and there are reasons the dish you once loved may no longer taste the same.

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  1. >>- charging for bread and butter

    Or the chips and salsa.

    I've already experienced the first and read about the second, and won't go to places that do either.

    If it comes to be standard practice, I will save a LOT of money from not eating out.

    They are idiots if they do all of the above in lieu of raising prices. I don't like being played.

    2 Replies
    1. re: dolores

      That is exactly the reason that restaurants are going for sneaky stuff that the customers won't notice. Raise prices ... people notice. Charge for freebies ... people notice. Substitute margarine for butter or lighten a drink ... eh, maybe you might notice something is amiss, but probably not.

      I should read Chow more often ... and if the site wasn't so slooow and buggy I might. Anyway, this topic was covered recently. Didn't notice till just now.

      Less Booze for Your Buck

      Menu Madness

      The last has a good link to a Boston Globe article about people eating out less and making wiser choices ... making their restaurant buck count.

      One would hope that the economic problem would be a time when the good guys win and not the slicksters trying to fool customers.

      Maybe its a time to explore the small mom and pops dishing up interesting yet less pricy eats.

      1. re: dolores

        I recently went to an Italian restaurant that had a note on the menu that the first basket of bread is free, additional baskets are $2 each. Seemed strange at first, but it didn't bother me because they didn't skimp on the first basket. I don't see the problem with charging for bread/butter, especially since a lot goes uneaten.

      2. Our local Glory Days, and a privately owned Italian restaurant that we visit are both using smaller serving plates for some menu items, hence smaller portions. This is especially noticeable with soup appetizer that we share at GD and at our last visit to the Italian restaurant my serving of pasta was 1/3 less - the serving dish used was much more shallow than the dishes they used a month ago. I can't be the only one to notice these changes, but it doesn't seem to have hurt their businesses. Glory Days is also now offering 1/2 pours of wine. I guess a $5 glass of wine is easier to sell than a $8 glass.

        1. Really interesting, thanks.
          Some of these "sneaky tricks" don't bother me, though. Like "using everything." They should be trying to do that as much as possible anyway, IMO.

          1. Given the obesity problem in the U.S., maybe less food/smaller plates and charging for extras like bread is a good thing. The change in ingredients is a bigger issue. If they're above board, what can you say. However calling catfish grouper isn't right. Re-use of ingredients for a second time like bread pudding or bread soup, etc., why not. The U.S. wastes so much food it should be encouraged.

            30 Replies
            1. re: ML8000

              >>Given the obesity problem in the U.S., maybe less food/smaller plates and charging for extras like bread is a good thing.

              You actually believe that will help? Not.

              >>One would hope that the economic problem would be a time when the good guys win and not the slicksters trying to fool customers.

              That WOULD be nice wouldn't it? Not likely, but nice.

              1. re: dolores

                "You actually believe that will help? Not."

                Why wouldn't restaurants serving smaller portions actually help to put a dent in the problem, however small? At the very least, people might begin to get used to the idea of what portions are supposed to look like.

                1. re: tatamagouche

                  Because control, like discipline and personal responsibility, begins at home. I don't want a restaurant deciding food portions for me. If a person can't figure out how to eat half their dish and then bring half home, they shouldn't venture outside their house.

                  Aside from the Big Brother-ness of it all, it will give a lot of restaurants carte blanche to charge me a lot of money for a little bit of food.

                  As the yogurt and ice cream makers decided with their hosing. I'm sure they will happily use the 'we're helping people lose weight by giving less product' baloney in their adverts.

                  >>At the very least, people might begin to get used to the idea of what portions are supposed to look like.

                  That's what a library is for.

                  1. re: dolores

                    A, when *doesn't* a restaurant decide your portion sizes? Does the server come out with the pot and ask you how much you want? Unless it's served family style, they plate it.

                    B, a library is for determining portion sizes? Huh? That's how little we understand portion sizes, that we have to go look it up in a book?

                    I totally agree with you about food wisdom beginning at home. However, I wouldn't assume that "discipline and personal responsibility" are the only factors involved in a family's eating habits.

                    1. re: tatamagouche

                      A. I don't go to restaurants that serve tiny bits of food for lots and lots of money. Sure they determine the size, but I avoid those that hose their customers. My favorite restaurants give a big enough portion to warrant their prices. If it's too much for me to eat in one sitting, I don't sit there and eat it all, I -- duh -- bring what I can't eat home.

                      B. If an adult doesn't know the portion of food they 'should' be eating, they can go to the library for a book with pictures.

                      1. re: dolores

                        You still haven't really addressed the issue: restaurant costs are going up. They can either raise their prices or serve less food. Given that most restaurant portions are bigger than necessary anyway, I think it's better to keep the price the same and reduce the quantity (although not the quality, and they shouldn't lie about the size of the portion). I'd rather pay a smaller amount and not try to take half of it home than pay more money for more food than I can (or should) eat.

                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                          >>You still haven't really addressed the issue: restaurant costs are going up. They can either raise their prices or serve less food.

                          Yes. I did. In my first post.

                          --They are idiots if they do all of the above in lieu of raising prices. I don't like being played.--

                          >>I'd rather pay a smaller amount and not try to take half of it home than pay more money for more food than I can (or should) eat.

                          And I wouldn't. See my first post.

                          What would you do if they raised their prices with another lame excuse, perhaps the 'green' excuse? Would you demand that they return the portion size to what it was?

                          I don't need a restaurant hosing me in the exact same manner that ice cream manufacturers are trying to hose me.

                          When it comes to restaurants, though, the answer is simple. I won't go to restaurants that engage in 'portion control'. Thankfully, there are lots of restaurants out there. There are NOT anymore ice cream manufacturers who haven't jumped on the 'hosing' bandwagon.

                          1. re: Ruth Lafler

                            Yeah, I don't mind paying for bread or even chips and salas if that keeps the prices down on the entrees.

                            Kind of interesting most people not only don't seem to mind reduced portions, but even welcome them. I was actually excited to see that some restaurants are introducing shot glass-sized desserts. For me a taste is enough. I'd also love to see the half-portion option just as I like half-glass options on wine.

                            As far as offering cheaper options, I was amused by the report on the SF board where a diner raved about a chicken liver dish and beneights ... $9 beneights at that ... but still ... that is ok because even though they are using cheaper ingrediants, they are upforward about it.

                            The only thing that would bother me is the places that disguise what is going on ... using margarine, cheaper cheese ... things not so noticable ... and the places using out and out fraud like catfish for grouper deserve to go out of business.

                            What ... no one is outraged about the cheaper reformulated cheese that Chuckie Cheese is using? I mean CC had horrid pizza to start with and now the cheese is CHEAPER ??? Yikes ... it is supposed to spread out thinner requiring less ... well there you go ... less cheese and healthier ... so many benefits to the economy tanking, eh?

                            1. re: rworange

                              >>Yeah, I don't mind paying for bread or even chips and salas if that keeps the prices down on the entrees.

                              But it won't keep the prices down on the entrees. The prices will creep up and the restaurant will still charge for the bread and the chips.

                              GOOD for restaurants who do this if there are people willing to pay for it.

                              1. re: rworange

                                "Yeah, I don't mind paying for bread or even chips and salas if that keeps the prices down on the entrees."

                                I totally agree. I'm not a big bread eater and I'm not sure why I should have to subsidize those who chose to eat basket after basket of bread.

                                1. re: rworange

                                  jfood thinks the term that everyone would agree (maybe not everyone) is a reasonable portion for a fair price. If restos have to pick up the tab for all the freebies people expect then the numbers of restaurants will decrease and that is anti-Chow.

                                  And since jfood is not a big take-home person, he would much, rather prefer (no sentence structure comments pleas, double emphasis intended) a portion that meets the normal requirements versus the portion size for the people who want to eat out one night and enjoy the leftovers the next. And bravo to the restaurant, mentioned somewhere here, that has two prices, one for the normal and one for the hearty appetite. This is such a great, fantastic idea, that jfood hopes it becomes an accepted practice. And to those that want their cake and eat it too, they can pay the extra freight for the bigger portion, pay for the cartons to take it home for the next night's meal and everyone gets what they want. Jfood does not want to supplement other peoples' habits and does not ask others to support his.

                                  Wrt bread, jfood would relish the charge for the bread. Like everything else on the menu there is a cost to the restaurant and if the restaurant charged a couple of bucks for the bread, jfood would probably pass and not having the extra carbs is a good thing. As others have mentioned, this is pretty SOP in other countries.People who want the bread, pay up, it isn;t free to the restaurant why should it be free to the customer.

                                  Bottom line is you want it, you order it, you pay for it. The couple at Table 23 are not responsible for all of your freebies.

                                  1. re: jfood

                                    Bless you Master jfood and your foodie karma. Why other Hounds don't get the basic value-for-food concept, I don't know.

                                    1. re: pikawicca

                                      Agree with the blessing of Master jfood and his logical post. I agree - sometimes I want bread; sometimes I don't. Just because it's *been* free doesn't mean it should always be so. It costs the restaurant money. If a small surcharge is added for bread and spreads, so be it. I'll pay for it if I really really want the bread. Otherwise, more room for a normal-sized meal. (Also love the idea of a restaurant doing half portions!)

                                    2. re: jfood

                                      jfood, i agree with you most of the way. i wouldn't be too upset about a charge for bread (or tortillas or whatever), especially since there is always a built-in charge for these items, anyway (the restaurant pays for it, and passes on the cost somehow, right?). i am one of those people who sits on their hands when the bread comes because i know i don't need it (unless it's super-special bread at a fancy restaurant, and then all bets are off). however, this does not change the fact that many many people will feel slighted, creating a sneaking suspicion that they are getting less for their money. if the restaurant charges $2 for a basket of bread, and keeps the rest of their menu the same, then the diner is now paying an extra $2 per meal for the same thing they were getting yesterday. again, i am not a person who brings food home from a restaurant very often (maybe once per year, under certain circumstances), so i don't need a huge portion to make me happy. but i wouldn't be too thrilled if my go-to places started adding charges where there weren't any before. i would be kind of miffed, initially. then i would get over it, i guess, because that's the way it goes...
                                      i do, however, believe that we will start seeing his happen more and more, if wheat prices remain at these inflated levels. what i personally hope to see more of are half-portions at restaurnts. i think they are a great way to offer cost-saving opportunities to both the restaurant and the diner (and reducing waste in the process) without jeopardizing quality or overall experience.
                                      Just my 0.02!

                                      1. re: vvvindaloo


                                        here is the reality of the situation in 2008. Wheat prices are up 40% at least and other commodities for a restaurant are up as well. People see the prices at the grocers and fret when they pick up milk, eggs, bread, etc. So they are already paying the additional amount for the things they see at their own dining tables.

                                        So if these same people think that a restaurant is some magician's top hat that can absorb the same prices as a cost and not pass it on to the customer in some form then, quite frankly they need to take the heads out of the sand.

                                        If they have suspicions, or think the restaurant is pulling a fast one or any other lame excuse, well then these same people should just stay home and absorb 100% of the cost of the increased prices by buying and eating by themselves. At least the restaurant is trying it's best to eat some of the cost and pass on some of the cost.

                                        And if the costs to the restaurant increase $400 and they serve 400 customers, then their choice is to raise the price to everyone $1 or change the business model to charge for what people eat, interesting concept. Jfood would rather the latter.

                                        1. re: jfood

                                          jfood, I think you and I are totally on the same page now, as we wrote just about the same thing!
                                          The half-portion concept (which I certainly didn't come up with myself) is also a selfish on on my part- I get to have some pasta, some entree and still maybe room for dessert :)

                                      2. re: jfood

                                        love your post, Jfood. re the portion size issue: it's tough as a chef or server to throw perfectly good food away, because a customer did not finish her/his largish restaurant portion. many times the doggie bag goes home, of course, but so many meals are eaten in restaurants when the diners are on their way to an event where they can't carry the leftovers, business meals, have a hotel room and no way to reheat, etc, so the expensive leftover portion is trashed. it's so wasteful, and as you point out, of course we all pay for it somehow.

                                        a chef in my town whom i admire very much looked at obesity, restaurant portion sizes, human psychology, etc. and came up with the following solution: in his fine dining restaurant, the portions are planned according to the size that satisfies 80% of people, with minimal waste. for the 20% of diners who have heartier appetites, his staff is instructed to provide more food until the diner is satisfied, at no additional charge. he does not advertise this, because he's not running an all you can eat buffet-- but the result is minimal waste and satisfied customers who have not tried to cram an unhealthy portion of food. i think he's brilliant, others i'm sure would think he's somehow trying to cheat people, but he has a very loyal following of grateful customers.

                                        1. re: soupkitten

                                          Soupkitten, this is interesting. How does that chef determine who has healthier appetites? Is it by the size of a person? How quickly one eats? Or is it from customer feedback?

                                          And I heartily endorse the idea of two sizes. If you look at averages, women have a smaller nutritional requirements than men. Yet restaurant servings are generally geared so that most men are satisfied. So what are women (or smaller eaters) to do? As you have mentioned, there are many reasons why one may not be able to get the food to go and there is either waste or you've got a situation where people unnecessarily stuff themselves in order to prevent the waste.

                                          1. re: Miss Needle

                                            i believe that he's just trained his servers to be very attentive to each customers' needs and respond to any hint or inkling of hunger at the end of the meal. on one occasion i had dinner there with dh we were absolutely satisfied, but as the server cleared the plates i mentioned that a vegetable had been fabulous, & she immediately offered to bring more-- i wanted room for dessert so i declined, but i think all of the servers are on point with this. it's "gotten around," unofficially among the dining crowd that this is the chef's policy, and customers seem grateful to know that they can get more food if they're really hungry. i don't think the policy is being abused-- but it's not something that your average person on the street would know about.

                            2. re: dolores

                              Let's help the masses, not those that research and practice self-discipline. We are a consuming nation, let's consume less, let's have less plated for us, let's think global in everything we do. If my greens are not same day but my favorite resto has decided to do weely instead of daily deliveries, let's support that and encourage them in doing what's right with our business. If we charge for incidentals, bread and butter, maybe people will learn to ask for it if they want it and not pick at it, waste it or ignore it on the table. Maybe the person who does not practice self control will learn that bread is not necessary and doesn't have to be eaten just because it is there. I know when I am full and I bag what I don't eat and have it for lunch tomorrow but I also have seen plates of pasta tossed, salads tossed untouched. Time we were less gluttonous (sp) and more focussed, hitting in the wallet might help move that along.

                          2. re: dolores

                            Will it solve obesity in the U.S.? No.

                            Can it help? Yes.

                            If people get use to seeing (and eating) smaller servings, it can only help because eating has both psychological and perception factors involved.

                            Conversely Americans are use to and expect a pile of food. Most places easily serve 2x the norn/required...and many Americans eat that and want more.

                            How does a library get people, or kids for that matter, to understand portion size at restaurants? I agree that it's a personal matter and education can help but eating is so instinctual, experiential and hardwired to humans I think long term conditioning is a real factor.

                            1. re: ML8000

                              >>Conversely Americans are use to and expect a pile of food. Most places easily serve 2x the norn/required...and many Americans eat that and want more.

                              That's the fault of the diner. Bring home what you can't eat.

                              >>How does a library get people, or kids for that matter, to understand portion size at restaurants?

                              Answered above.

                              1. re: dolores

                                Again, placing blame squarely on the diner is perhaps a little premature. Yes, I agree with you, we as Americans are on the whole rather greedy.

                                But, as ML8000 points out, there are nurture and nature factors involved. A single parent works 2 jobs and gives her kids money to go to McDonald's every night. Their meals are supersized and they grow up thinking that's normal.

                                Then there's the fact that we are still somewhat hardwired to get what we can, when and where we can. The fact that you personally have learned self restraint is great for you, but it's a little tough to judge others so harshly without knowing their circumstances.

                                Restaurants could at least not make the lessons you've learned so well so much harder for others to learn by serving normal-sized portions.

                                1. re: tatamagouche

                                  ...Or, for that matter, gives them money to buy a can of beans and a can of tomatoes and make for themselves a nutritious dinner. Doesn't mean they'll do it...they're kids.

                              2. re: ML8000

                                "Conversely Americans are use to and expect a pile of food. Most places easily serve 2x the norn/required...and many Americans eat that and want more."

                                I don't know where you've been eating - but I very rarely eat at chains - some are known for this (Cheesecake Factory anyone?). The local independent restaurants that I frequent do not do this.

                                1. re: Jeanne

                                  In SF, the mid-price, $40 per/person, new American places serve a pile of food, easily 2x. The mid-price ethnic/fusion places serve less. On the whole however when you pop for $40 p/p on a weeknight in a neighborhood place, the expectation is of some value.

                                  As for chains, I haven't been to most: Chilis, TFIGs, PF Changs, CCF, Applebees, Olive Garden, etc.

                                  1. re: ML8000

                                    Really? Here in NY, I would say that the upscale-casual new American restaurant will have smaller portions (but fancier ingredients/methods) than an ethnic restaurant of the same caliber in the same price range.

                                    1. re: vvvindaloo

                                      Okay, it depends on the place and what's being served. Places that served refined appetizers (expensive ingredients) serve small. Places serving something braised short ribs w/ mashed potatoes serve a pile. You could get a small app and a huge plate in the same place. It all depends.

                                      Any way, I can eat a lot but over the past few years I've learned to stop when I get full. At the big plate places I usually slow down at 2/3 done. My guess is at half done I'd be full if I waited 10 I figure they're serving 2x.

                              3. re: dolores

                                I admire and envy your willpower and sense of self-control. I really do. But you seem to me so adamant about holding everyone to the same standards as yourself. There's a great deal of literature about the rise of obesity being closely correlated with the advent of fast food, the transformation of physical labor and play into computer games and desk jobs, and yes, portion sizes being so out of whack that people don't know anymore what's good for them. Many people don't even know they don't know. Others know, and still fall of the wagon more often than they care to. If restaurants can sell smaller portions, and those left hungry can buy an extra ____, then why not? What has anyone got to lose from that proposition? Except a few extra lbs they don't need anyhow?

                                1. re: sasha1

                                  I actually avoid places that put too much on the plate. I will read the advertisements for a place like Black Angus in the Sunday paper in which they promise a pris fixe meal of a greasy appetizer, salad, big steak and potato, finishing with a heavy chocolate dessert and play the mind game of figuring out how I would eat that mess. The appetizer, salad and dessert, I could eat because the leftovers would be (more) disgusting and take the steak and potato home? I dunno how they sell these things but since they pay for the ad, it must appeal to many.

                                  The solution sometimes is for my wife and I to split our order but that limits our choices to a common one and defeats the idea of going out to eat somewhat.

                            2. <- serving an 8oz steak though the menu says 10 oz< even an 8-ounce serving is to large to be healthful!

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: ChefJune

                                I was at this restaurant a few times where they serve steak by the oz. My thought was, "Great, I don't have to order a huge steak." Turns out that you needed to order an 8 oz minimum!

                                Problem I have with that statement is that the menu states 10 oz. Why can't they just change the menu to reflect 8 oz? I think that's really deceptive. I also have an issue with the catfish/grouper thing.

                                1. re: Miss Needle

                                  Not only is it not moral - its also illegal.

                                  That said, I know there is an issue with restaurants not knowing the white fish they sell as one thing is really another as they dont have accurate info from the suppliers.