What it it about food that you buy in a Restaurant that makes it taste so much better than home cooked? Despite having run a Greek restaurant in 2003 – I can’t tell you! Whatever the reason, going to a restaurant is always a treat, for the food, the ambiance, and the fact that there are no dishes afterwards.
What most people don’t know, is that the cost price of the food in front of you is roughly 30-35% of the menu price of the meal (in a sit down restaurant with table service). This is what is called the “food cost” of the meal and a restaurant that ignores this percentage does not stay in business long. This means that 66-70% of the price of the meal is for the experience of eating in the restaurant. This is not a rip-off, as these profits must cover the infrastructure (staff, rentals, supplies etc.) that allows you to sit and eat. Trust me, you do not get rich owning a restaurant. I loved it, but it made me poorer
What it does mean is that as the customer, paying for the experience, you have the right to insist on good value. This includes prompt and efficient service, good quality food and a great atmosphere.
My own mantra in the trade was; “You can forgive good service and average food, or average service and good food, but not bad service and bad food”. As a very fussy patron, who has on occasion tipped a good waiter the same value as the meal, I offer the following tips to having a good restaurant experience.
Before going out, decide how much you want to spend on a meal. This will have a big influence on your decision about where to eat. There is nothing worse that a customer searching the menu for the cheapest item because they are sitting in a restaurant that is more expensive than their pocket. In this scenario everyone has a bad experience. Don’t go to a 5 star restaurant when you only have a burgers money! Remember to include a tip in your calculations
Deciding on how much you want to spend takes pressure off, as you will have less conflict and indecision when refusing the starters and expensive drinks the waiter tries to sell you (It’s his job!). A well trained waiter reads his customer and makes good suggestions and spells out the cost, an unscrupulous waiter hijacks his customer with social pressure and adds extras you don’t necessarily want.
Check if the restaurant has a minimum charge and whether it includes the service fee in the menu price or not. Don’t get tricked into double tipping.
Eating out in the evening is great, but lunchtime eating means that the staff are less rushed; you are less likely to get a bad meal; and you are more likely to get good service. If it is slack time in the restaurant you will often be treated like royalty and not rushed to move as is the case with the busy evening shift. Even better, treat yourself to breakfast. This is the slowest shift in a restaurant and as a result the food cost gets forgotten and restaurants have really good deals on breakfasts. This is because serving a good cheap breakfast is an inexpensive way for a restaurant to showcase its menu and ambiance, so as to attract customers back.
Avoid going out on holidays, like Christmas and Valentines. Get real folks, these are high turnover days for restaurants and everyone is stressed. Some places may even have special high profit menu’s for these days to milk the customers. I never did this, but was often aware that other shops “Special Christmas Menu” was loaded in their favor profit-wise.
Restaurants make a killing on wine, often marking it up 200% on the store price. Rather buy your own and pay the corkage fee. Phone ahead to find out if they allow you to bring your own and what the charge is. Restaurants often have a house wine by the glass, but this is also marked up and can be some horrible plonk from a box. Check beforehand.
Don’t be ashamed to order tap water (if it’s safe in that area) as this is usually free. Check, the restaurants have caught on. If you are going to drink more than one glass ask your waiter for a jug. Promise you, he would rather land a jug of iced tap water on your table once, than run around for individual glasses. Tap water is properly served in a glass or jug, cold or with ice, and with a slice of fresh lemon to give it a tang. If you order mineral water, check what type and the cost before giving the OK. Ordering larger bottles of mineral water is cheaper (1l bottle as opposed to 250ml), and you MAY take it with if you don’t finish it. Mineral water should be served cool with no ice. Ice made from tap water in mineral water = stupid waiter, if the customer insists = stupid customer.
Avoid item marked SQ (special quote). These are seasonal or hard to get items and as a result, prices are inflated.
A good waiter starts his intro with the specials of the day. Beware! These are often items that the shop is trying to shift. Sometimes there can also be a real good deal. If a supplier offers a good price on a popular, high turnover item, the restaurant will often pass this on to customers as a promotion. Without getting too complicated, this makes good marketing sense. On the other hand, if the fish is close to going off, it can end up as a special to move it before it has to be thrown away. Use your judgement.
Ensure that you understand the pricing and watch out for those extras. A clever one pulled on me was “Would you like some sauce with that, it will bring out the flavor”. The implication was that it was a free extra. Needless to say, the additional charge was taken off my waiters tip. It is a smooth move on the waiters part, but I am not impressed. Don’t take it for granted anything is free. Always check.
Compare menu prices. A table salad for two may be cheaper that two individual salads, a 200g Calamari starter better value than a 300g Calamari main course and a 1l Mineral water cheaper than 4x250ml bottles. Ask the waiter, a good waiter will not be ashamed to explain the better deal because making you happy may add to his tip. I would always go sotto-voice at these times and make out it was a great secret between us. Trust me, managers worry about table cost, the amount an average table spends. A waiter, even one on a commission, would rather have a tip.
If you are unhappy, complain immediately. Don’t accept bad quality food. If the waiter gets funny, insist on seeing the manager. If you have a legitimate gripe, it good waiter will see to it immediately, a bad one passes the buck. Accept that sometimes waiters get orders mixed up, forget the special twist you wanted, or have to deal with the kitchen and it’s moods. On the other hand, if you are like some that complain to get something for free – get out! In my thinking, the customer is not always right, and there are some who are never satisfied. A note to the wise, these people are the usually the easy ones to spot. Managers and waiters are trained to watch the patrons, even those that are not their own, to ensure that they get good service. The “complain-to-get-comp’d” customer stands out, not least of all in that they wait for the end of the meal before complaining.
Restaurants with smaller menu’s are better as it is more likely they use fresh ingredients. Large menu’s means stuff sits in the fridge till it is ordered. A clever restaurant use the same items in many recipes.
Check your account carefully. Mistakes happen. Items get rung up incorrectly, or on the wrong account. Never underestimate human stupidity and greed. Waiters are not angels and when you add this to the fact they usually get commissions and tips (no salary), the extras and double tipping is maybe understandable (though not forgivable). Any manager or owner concerned with his business does not want an employee like that in his shop, and you will do him a favor raising the alarm.
Written by Julian Beams who lives in a small seaside village and runs restaurants and writes articles about them. If you love 80’s music, check out his site http://The80sRocks.com/.