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When should a restaurant NOT comp a meal?

I've noticed a few "worst experience ever" threads that share a few similar characteristics:

1. Expectations for the restaurant were set extremely high by other posters ("Best meal ever!").
2. The diner goes on a busy night (usually Friday or Saturday) and complains about crowds OR attentiveness of servers.
3. The diner goes on to complain about how the soup was over/underseasoned or that the salad didn't "knock my socks off." (Is any salad capable of this? We're talking about leaves and dressing, right?)
4. They're either indifferent to the main course (excessively high expectations maybe) OR they order something for which the restaurant isn't well known for (steak usually, or some food at an ethnic restaurant for which that ethnicity isn't really well known for cooking well).
5. Instead of telling the servers immediately, they say they got tired of waiting for the server to show up, then proceed to eat the entire meal because they were hungry.
6. Diner tries to get the meal comped. Sometimes the manager does this grudgingly; sometimes they offer a dessert or drink.
7. Diner claims this as their "worst meal ever."

I'm not doubting the diner had a bad time. I think everyone has had meals that didn't meet expectations. But I have to wonder how much of this is the fault of the restaurant and how much is because of unreasonable expectations perpetuated by other Hounds? Check any thread discussing "Best Restaurant in (insert any city)" and amid all the glowing reviews, there are always a handful of "Worst Meal Ever" or "Most Overrated" posts. Comping meals isn't "free;" the cost of those meals comes out of the restaurant's bottom line and that cost is passed on to every person who dines there. I guess my point is "is the customer really always right?" and if not, should the restaurant comp the meal anyway, even though the diner probably still won't be happy with the experience?

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  1. Years ago I worked as a waitress in a restaurant and diners baffled me with their creative ways of trying to get their meals comped. I personally feel they should be comped if they took a couple bites of the meal and really didn't like it. Or, if the meal took so long to prepare that by the time it arrived they couldn't eat it because they had to leave. You shouldn't have to pay for what you don't consume.

    If a customer consumes an entire meal and then tries to say it was terrible and they want their money back, I don't think that is appropriate. I wouldn't give them anything except a customer appreciation card!(Since they ate all their food, they surely must come back for more!)
    If the service really was so bad that the diner got their food delivered late or condiments delivered so late they couldn't eat their burger, surely they should be comped. But restaurants can't afford to constantly comp a meal. This is where good managierial decision making is important.

    1. "is the customer really always right?" .... No
      Comping a meal is a last resort.
      No restaurant wants to do it no matter how expensive or inexpensive the place might be.

      When I managed restaurants the policy was for the server and management to check on the customers throughout their meal to make sure everything was "alright". If someone said they didn't like something we'd offer to make them something else. They didn't think their order was prepared properly, we'd re-make it to correct the problem.

      You are never going to please everyone who walks into your establishment.

      Some reason I'm thinking this thread is going to be removed.

      1 Reply
      1. re: monku

        I think a lot of "worst experience ever" threads could have been remedied had the servers did what you noted: check with the diner throughout the meal (after apps/wine is served, main course, dessert). This gets to be difficult if the server is handling a lot of tables and it's a busy night. Then again, this kind of attentiveness could just as easily be misred by the customer as being intrusive, so a lot of it comes down the server being able to read his/her customer.

      2. Restaurants should only comp meals if there was a big mistake made on their part. If a diner simply doesn't like their dish or it didn't "wow" them, that is the risk of dining out. If people expect a comp every time they got a less than stellar meal, restaurants would go out of business fast.

        This reminds me of a poster who asked about offerings in my town. Numerous people, including myself, recommended a local favorite. The poster went and ordered the only non-fish, non-meat meal on the menu - something that nobody suggested - and then said the food was way over rated and over priced. Um, why not order what people raved about? If you wanted vegetarian, nobody would have suggested that place!

        3 Replies
        1. re: mojoeater

          This seems to happen a lot with steakhouses. A group or couple go to a steakhouse, but one person doesn't like steak or is a vegetarian. So they go to the steakhouse and the non-steak person orders something like a crab cake or a couple appetizers or the spaghetti or a bowl of tofu, and they're inevitably disappointed. Yet almost every restaurant, regardless of speciality or ethnicity, offers a burger dish or a grilled chicken caesar salad for the people who don't want whatever that speciality/ethnicity is. Bewildering.

          1. re: monkeyrotica

            Yep, and never happens the other way round. I have managed restaurants from fine dining to steakhouses, and no matter what, we always had options for vegetarians, vegans, pescatarians etc etc.
            We are fully aware that in a group of diners, there may be a dietary requirement. We always aim to fulfil a decent meal for that guest.

            Anyone ever been to a vegetarian restaurant and ordered a blue steak? Thought not.

          2. re: mojoeater

            Correct. Comping arises not from Restaurant Meh! but Restaurant Fail! (and not just fail subjectively but objectively: and comping only applies to the specific failed meals, not necessarily the entire table unless the fail was table-wide in nature, which is much rarer still).

            Customers who expect comping when it's not appropriate fall into the Customer Fail! category.

          3. Those people really grind my gears. You know what I do if I don't like the food I get at a place? I don't go back. (not entirely true, I'm usually willing to give a second chance)

            1. To expect a meal that you have eaten to be comped is ridiculous. If I get something really bad or cooked totally incorrectly (usually an overdone steak), I just send it back. If I eat the meal and think it was terrible, I will happily tell them that their food is horrible, but certainly not expect it to be free. I just don't go back.

              1. I have never "asked" for a comp! I just wouldnt know how to vocalize that!? but I do recall one time eating about 80% of a dish and finding a 5/8" fine thread, hex-head nut in the bottom of the bowl(also found the cotter pin that apparently was in charge of keeping said nut on its respective bolt.....is that a cotterFAIL?). After pointing this out to the server with my only intention being to let someone know that a piece of equipment was obviously needing some attention, they took the dish off my bill. I did not insist on paying.

                That being said, I have been back numerous times and do not hold such an obviously accidental incident against them. Nor would I have asked for the meal to be comp'd. My fellow diners never cease to baffle me........

                1 Reply
                1. re: nkeane

                  A good manager will assess each situation on its own merit, and can remove a meal from the bill with confidence.
                  It's not hard to see the intent of a guest who is trying it on.

                  A good hint for younger, newer staff moving into management is this:

                  Offer a solution.
                  "I'm sorry you didn't like your meal. Can I offer you another alternative from the menu?"
                  (diner) "No, and I'm not paying for this!"
                  "Can I perhaps, then, offer you a complimentary dessert, or a wine, or something else?"
                  "Oh yes, I'll have a double shot Johnny Walker Blue!"
                  "I'm sorry, but I can't offer you that. And, since you ate your whole meal before alerting us to a problem with it, could you just go fuck yourself and leave me to hate you? That would be great!"
                  (Last bit is internal talk :) )

                2. I do remember finding half a tomato sticker in my burger at the local brew pub, and my waiter didn't even comp my drink. I mean I'll still go back to the restaurant, i like it and the experience was rather a fluke. However, I thought he might be a little sensitive when I told him. He also was new, and I don't think the thought even occurred to him.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: adventuresinbaking

                    Stray items in food that definitely should not be there (bugs, body parts, once I had a broken-up toothpick -- not the one meant to hold the sandwich together -- embedded in my burger, and I think that counts) should merit a comped meal. Stray items like a random shrimp in your chicken dish or a piece of green pepper in your mushroom omelette shouldn't, I think, unless the diner has an allergy to the food in question.

                  2. You order a meal, you get a meal, you pay for a meal. If you don't like the food, don't go back to the restaurant. What's so hard about that?

                    There are times when a comp is an appropriate goodwill gesture. If a server spills a drink down the back of my neck, or if a valet pulls the car into traffic without looking and gets into a fender-bender, or if there's a paver missing from the patio and my wife steps in the hole and takes a tumble, then I expect the restaurant to make it right - not just the cost of dry cleaning, body work, or a doctor's visit, but something for the hassle and the negative impact on the evening's enjoyment. But to expect a comp because you aren't blown away by the food? Sheesh.

                    1. I'm a restaurateur. Thank goodness there are folks around like you! All of the above posts made my day.

                      The only people I like less than those who connive to get a comp are people who "beg" for more liquor ("make it a strong one!") when I'm pouring a drink.

                      I will absolutely not comp a meal that's been more than 40% consumed. And sadly, over the years, there were three customers who got their meal and drinks comped, because I just felt so bad about their experiences. And what happened? Did they come back and give me another chance? Nope.

                      Instead, these three plastered their bad experience all over the internet. I mean, Yelp!, CitySearch and Menuism to name a few. When one goes to these sites and reads the nice preponderance of kind reviews, to see the skewering I get (and blatant lies told) should let people that there's something up with the posters -- not the restaurant.

                      Like so many other Chowhounders, if there's just no hope for a restaurant, I'll vote with my feet and go elsewhere. Life's hard enough without having to re-play all of my less-than-pleasant restaurant experiences on the inter-web.

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: shaogo

                        Damned if you do damned if you don't.

                        Customers have an expectation to be comped for every minor problem. Good example is the above poster complaining about the tomatoe label in his burger is that customer.

                        1. re: shaogo

                          This reminds me of the classic bad experience story (anyone who can recollect the source for this is very welcome to chime in - I don't believe its apocryphal but I don't remember the source). A woman went to a restaurant (I don't recall if she was a previous regular or not) and experienced absolutely awful service. She gave a great tip to the server. The next time she went, she had the same server, who treated her like gold. This time, as she left, she called the server over and gave a penny tip, with roughly the following politely delivered admonition: this is for my last experience here - the tip you received the last time was for today's service - just so you know that you should never let what happened the last time ever happen to any of your customers again.

                          1. re: shaogo

                            I hear you.
                            Anonymous, and therefore unaccountable people posting bad restaurant reviews on social media could well kill a decent restaurant.
                            If Yelp or Urbanspoon etc made people sign up to their website using a credit card, even with no charge made, it would eliminate anonymity, meaning people have to put their REAL name to their complaints.
                            It would also stop the trolling of that new restaurant around the corner who posts a lot of bad reviews about their competition.
                            And my personal hatred: the obvious trolling when a certain restaurant gets ONE bad review, followed by an influx of glowing reports by first time reviewers.

                          2. A few months back, I went to a local bistro. Loved the starter. Cleared the plate on my main. Loved my dessert.

                            When I'd finished my main, I was asked how it was. I said it was fine but had found the sauce rather too sweet and suggested the chef might like to review that. When the bill came, I found that the whole of my meal had been comp'd . Ludicrous and such a stupid loss of profit - which is exactly what I told the manager who replied "You didnt like it, you don't pay".

                            They're not going to be in business to long with daft attitudes like that.

                            8 Replies
                            1. re: Harters

                              No, actually they're building goodwill. If a business runs a "tight ship," then a generous gift like the one the owner gave to you usually results in good word-of-mouth buzz about the place.

                              Take a look at businesses which have a 100% "customer-is-always-right" satisfaction guarantee. They're all making a lot of money.

                              The only time a restaurant can't afford to be generous is if they're running a very small profit margin. However, places like that won't be in business long, for other reasons.

                              1. re: shaogo

                                There's a reason restaurants don't offer a "100% satisfaction guarantee".

                                1. re: shaogo

                                  Indeed. I've mentioned it to folk - who have promptly visited and then tried to complain in the hope of getting a comp'd meal.

                                  A perfectly full and acceptable response would have been for the manager to acknowledge that I hadnt enjoyed it as much as I could have done and agree to raise the sweetness issue with the chef. Whether she did raise it or the chef had ignored it is another matter - their sauce is still too sweet on another main last time we visited and we won't be going back. Such a shame.

                                  1. re: Harters

                                    There seems to be a class of people for whom the meal itself is secondary to their need to make things difficult for servers and restaurant owners. This includes every possible attempt to get items comped, but also includes moving from table to table to get just the right combination of view/AC/ambience, or looking for an excuse to leave little or no tip. I used to think it was just frugal people trying to get something for nothing, but I've come to conclude that it's about them just being able to boss people around. They could probably care less about how the food tastes, just so long as they can complain about how it wasn't done right or they didn't get their water refilled fast enough or whatever. I avoid eating out with these people if at all possible.

                                    1. re: monkeyrotica

                                      You've hit the nail on the head. Oh, how I dread these people (particularly the "too hot/too cold" people in a crowded restaurant who think that their needs over-ride the needs of the dozens of people there who're comfortable).

                                      1. re: shaogo

                                        Mrs. Monkey is one of the "too cold" people; for some reason, they always seat us directly under an AC vent that's blasting cold air. I make it a point to remind her to bring a sweater when we go to a restaurant. Looks pretty silly dragging a sweater around in the middle of August, but it's a lot less irritating than walking around in 98 degree heat, then going into a restaurant where the AC is set to "Arctic Tundra" and the sheen of sweat on your skin turns to ice. Still, we don't even consider telling them to turn the AC down and I certainly wouldn't want to be comped for it.

                                        1. re: monkeyrotica

                                          This is so right. It's as simple as this:
                                          I work in this industry because I love it. I love helping people enjoy themselves, I love serving great food, I love the interaction and sharing of a great experience.

                                          Sadly, there are people who just do not want to go out and enjoy themselves. They get more satisfaction internally be moaning and disliking everything. You just can't please them.

                                          I had one tonight. She just complained about everything.
                                          Entree: Salmon Tartare
                                          "I thought it would have been cooked, I don't even know why you would serve raw fish!"
                                          (Me) "erm, tartare is a dish that uses a raw protein ingredient, often using acidic touches, sorry you didn't like it"
                                          (Me in my head). Don't order something you know shit about, lady!"
                                          Main Course:
                                          Beef Eye Fillet with mushroom ragout, potato gratin, asparagus and red wine jus. Ordered by guest as medium rare.
                                          Guest: "There is still blood in my steak. I will not be paying for this!"
                                          Me. "Erm, no, ma'am, you ordered medium rare, there is no blood, but yes it is pink in the middle..that is medium rare."
                                          "What are you doing to my wine glass!!!"
                                          "I am topping up your wine, to enjoy with your meal. I can stop if you wish."
                                          "No, but this is terrible. Such a shame, as I have heard good things about this restaurant, and it's been terrible."
                                          (The downtrodden husband opposite seems to want to crawl under the table in shame)
                                          Me ( having taken enough): "ok then, I'll just get your check."
                                          Her: "But,(splutter), but, we haven't even been offered dessert, or coffee!"
                                          Me: "Such a shame! Since you have heard so many good comments about us. But, you are right, we are terrible. There are four or five coffee houses up the road. I'll get your check now."

                                          1. re: cronker

                                            Good for you, cronker.

                                            I've never worked in the industry but certainly visit quite a lot of restaurants during the year as a diner. I am most definitely not a believer that the customer is always right. Some customers, in any business, can be complete arsewipes and you can happily do without their future business.

                              2. A restaurant should NEVER comp a meal to silence a loud obnoxious patron who threatens to complain to the franchisor, owner, BBB or write complaint letters. Or worse threaten bad word of mouth.
                                Appeasement is not the answer.

                                2 Replies
                                  1. re: bagelman01

                                    To add to that: Should never comp a patron who plays the "Yelp card".

                                  2. I was at an El Chico mexican restaurant in Lufkin, Texas, having lunch with 3 golf buddies, 2 of them buying lunch for me and my partner for having lost the morning match. The waitress served our plates, mine was something smothered in a sea of red sauce, and refilled our water glasses. She slipped and dropped my water glass in such a way that it landed in the middle of the sea of red sauce, and sauce/water exploded in my direction only, like a shotgun blast. For a few moments I could not see for all the stuff all over me. I heard her shreik and burst into tears and she ran away and we never saw her again. Meanwhile, my golf buddies, including my own partner, cannot contain their laughter. They didn't get hit by a drop; I got all of it. A manager came over and said that my lunch would be comped, which re-doubled the laughter because my buddies were allready buying, and now the price for this great entertainment got cheaper. The manager gave me 5 bucks to dry clean my golf shirt, but as I recall it was nice Sea Island cotton that was permanently ruined. Stuff happens, you move on. I remained a customer; it couldn't happen again.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: Veggo

                                      Similar situation at a Las Vegas country club.
                                      Ramekin of ketchup slipped off a plate from a waitress delivering food onto my golf shirt. They told me to go to the pro shop and pick out a new one. Don't know why, but they kept my old golf shirt and I still paid for the lunch. But, it was a $50 golf shirt. I thought I was still ahead.

                                    2. I agree with a lot of these posts - people should generally not get comped for a meal already eaten unless there is some extreme reason to do so. My experience as both a former waitress and as a frequent diner is that often people who actually deserved a comp didn't expect it, and were happy enough with a genuine apology/ replacement. But there is another kind of customer who will NEVER be happy and almost seems to relish an opportunity to complain loudly. And they will still complain even if you comp them. I once was dining at a small struggling restaurant and watched a woman send back a meal three times, and not because something was wrong, but because this red sauce isn't "doing it for her", so could she please try it with a different sauce? And she was also sending back wine after she tasted it, not because it was off, but because "hmmm, something sweeter might be nice, could I try X instead?"

                                      I think one down-side to the internet is that food becomes about "where is the absolute best Pho, which is the best chocolate malt etc." which can be fun, but also causes people to lose sight of other parts of the dining experience, and sets really high standards for restaurants to live up to.

                                      1. i have a problem with people who think that finding a hair in their food is so gross, that they deserve a comped meal. I'd give a free dessert at the most.

                                        1. I offer a $25 gift card which forces the client to come back. If they don't then I've lost nothing, if they do it cost be $8.50 real cost

                                          5 Replies
                                          1. re: DOUGMUIR

                                            The only time I can ever remember getting a significant comp is when the order was so screwed up that they entire table didnt eat together. (e.g. 2 of the 4 entrees were just wrong)

                                            I have on many occasions had a drink comped for very slow service and a specific dish comped for a specific problem (usually a hair or other nonedible thing in the dish)

                                            1. re: DOUGMUIR

                                              I few any compensation from any business which requires me to return to be disingenuous, doubly so if they require me to actually spend money when using it (eg a $25 coupon if I'd really need to spend $50). It's actually a turnoff for me.

                                              1. re: jgg13

                                                and that is why we do it. there are many clients out there that just want free stuff. this weeds them out.

                                                1. re: DOUGMUIR

                                                  I never expect nor demand free stuff, however there are times where it's appreciated.

                                                  A place which gives me something like you described probably just guaranteed that i would never return, even if the reason I'm getting something comped would not have made me avoid the place in the first place. It is insulting.

                                                  Edit: this doesn't include comps for happy reasons, like "you're a great customer". I'm talking purely about "oops, we screwed up" type of stuff

                                                  1. re: jgg13

                                                    Yep, and then you go to Yelp and report that the restaurant didn't even give you a free Maserati!
                                                    And I'm going to tell all my friends!

                                            2. If they take something back for a legitimate complaint after a few bites it should not be charged.

                                              Comped implies you got to eat for free and that should happen at the restaurant's discretion if they feel you've had bad service or something else has affected your meal.

                                              1. I think the restaurant should not be expected to comp a meal if the diner eats it before complaining. But the, I am the type that never asks to have a meal comped anyway. There have been a very few times when I sent something back as unacceptable (before eating more than a tiny bit), and there was at least one time when a meal was comped after I ate the entire thing and made a modest complaint at the end (but didn't ask for anything). I can think of a couple of times when a meal should have been comped after I found a dangerous nonfood item in it, but wasn't (I didn't ask). Sometimes there are problems and I chalk it up to experience and move on. There are more important things to do in life than argue about a meal of a few dollars.

                                                1. I think the expectation of a comp for any little quibble is just an extension of how customers have been trained by Trader Joe's, Costco and Whole Foods. You say you don't like something you bought at those places, for any reason whatsoever ? You don't even need to bring the product back (ie. feel free to eat the rest of it), they'll refund your money.

                                                  1. I knew of a restaurant who would 'comp' the odd meal when it was clear the staff had screwed up. No problem.
                                                    But there were some people who made a hobby of moving from one restaurant to another and trying to get their meals comped.
                                                    A few restaurant owners clued into the scam. When they compted a meal they began to require that the guests sign their name on a paper "just for the bookkeeper". It tuned out there were three families who were at the center of the scam.
                                                    These were the same families whose sons and husbands were scamming little old ladies offering to 'fix' the roof. They would take a despot for roofing material and never return.

                                                    1. We had very poor customer service from the start to the finish of our meal at a well-known Vegas restaurant. I mean, it wasn't just one or two little things. The food was good so there was no reason to complain about that. But by the end of the meal, after waiting 30 minutes just for the check, I tweeted that I couldn't believe how horrible our experience was.

                                                      The company responded to the tweet before we even left the restaurant. They emailed me the next day and asked for a run-down of what had happened. . . which I sent to them. I told them that we were just tourists who likely wouldn't be back to Vegas anytime soon and that I had no plans to post a negative review on Yelp or anywhere else.

                                                      The general manager emailed me and invited us to brunch on the house so his staff could provide us with a much better experience. We went and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. It was a wonderful gesture of goodwill particularly to 2 people who clearly weren't going to become regular guests. If we return to Vegas, we would definitely visit that place again.

                                                      1 Reply
                                                      1. Some people just need to learn a little gratitude. They leave the restaurant angry for whatever reason, race home to write an anger fueled rant on every online site, complain to all their friends, and carry all this anger over a meal they didn't like.

                                                        If I order something that I don't like, I'll ask to have it wrapped to go. I'll also ask the server if they could put some napkins or paper towels and any plastic utensils that they may have.

                                                        Quite a few people that are out on the streets would be more than happy to have my meal with no complaints.

                                                        I'm grateful I can afford to eat out. I can always grab a hotdog on my way home. Life is way too short.

                                                        4 Replies
                                                        1. re: delk

                                                          Why would you take home something you dont like? Be honest and tell the server you dont like it.

                                                          1. re: kpaxonite

                                                            Did you miss the part where they're giving it to a homeless person?

                                                            1. re: jgg13

                                                              If I give to my doggy, and he eats it, like he certainly will, it's money well spent.

                                                            2. re: kpaxonite

                                                              Oh, I'm honest, I just can't get all worked up about it or expect to be comped. If I turn it back it will probably end up in the trash. May as well just give it to someone that is hungry. I also tend to give my doggy bags away. I have never been homeless, but I have been hungry and broke more than once.

                                                          2. I'm reminded of the old Woody Allen joke:

                                                            "The food is terrible. And the portions are so small!"