Tricks of the trade"Would you like sparkling, flat, or tap?" asks your server at the quaint bistro where you are treating your in-laws. Cringe. "You feel like a schmuck if you order tap water for the table," says Lily P. who worked for more than five years as a waitress in Northampton, Massachusetts. "It's 'Ye Olde Water Trick.' Sometimes the restaurant even leaves a pricey bottle of mineral water on the table. The customer opens it, and, boom, it goes on the tab."
Hard selling bottled water for a mark up 200% or more is of one of the many techniques restaurants use to separate customers from their paychecks. Going out to eat is inherently a luxury but at least you want to get your money's worth. Here are some tips to help you get the best value:
Soft drinks, coffee, and tea. Non-alcoholic beverages have a huge mark-up because they are mainly made of water. Why do you think your server keeps asking the kids if they want another large soda or lemonade? Fancy coffee drinks like cappuccino or espresso are often double the price of a regular coffee but don't cost much more to make.
Wine. Expect to pay at least a 200% mark up for wine (and often much more). A single glass of wine is usually priced at or above the wholesale cost of an entire bottle. The quality of the wines sold by the bottle also tends to be better so if your party is going to drink more than four glasses total that's a better way to go. However, wine consultant Randy Caparoso says avoid the second cheapest bottle on the list. It's likely to have the biggest bump up in price since people don't want to look like a miser buying the least expensive bottle.
Pasta. If you are a craving a bowl of noodles you might want to consider eating them at home. A box of pasta costs $1.99 and serves four to six. A bowl of pasta at a restaurant can cost anywhere from $8 -$18 on average and more if you are eating somewhere really fancy. Although you have to factor in a few dollars for the sauce, the mark up is significant no matter what the ingredients.
Pizza. Pizza dough is made of flour and water. Add a little tomato sauce and cheese and you are still talking cents on the dollar. Pizza is delicious and fun to eat, but not a great value-especially if it's a single menu item priced high at an upscale restaurant with other options.
Daily special. Omelet? Stew? Pasta? Beware of "special" soups, stews, and fillings. They may be comprised of leftover ingredients that didn't sell yesterday and are about to go bad.
Add-ons. Many restaurants train their employees to "up-sell" which means to get the customer to buy more than he or she intended to. Let's say you go to your favorite Mexican restaurant planning on ordering a burrito and a beer. After a head spinning litany of enthusiastic suggestions from the server, you end up ordering the shrimp quesadilla appetizer, a couple of margaritas with premium tequila, table side guacamole, a trio of salsas, the special fish tacos instead of a chicken burrito, and a passion fruit flan for dessert. Looking at the bill, you might feel like a sucker--unless your server "downsold" you --suggested conspiratorially that you order that margarita with house tequila because "you can't taste the liquor anyway."
Holidays. Avoid dining out on big days like Mother's Day and Valentine's Day. The set menu will be wildly overpriced and the service rushed. Take mom or your date out on the day before or after.
Menu design. Boxes, colors, and photos draw the eye to the item they feature. Don't be fooled, its usually the most profitable dish on the menu. Beware flowery descriptions as well: a Cornell Study found that customers are nearly one third more likely to purchase something with a creative name or long description.
Overly friendly servers. When did the trend of "Hi, my name is....and I'm your server tonight" begin? When some smart person realized that would make them more money. Research shows that customers leave higher tips when their server crouches beside the table, introduces themselves, touches them lightly, or writes a personal note or draws a smiley face on the bill.
What happens in a restaurant feels intimate and homey and appeals to our most basic need, to eat. But don't think of the staff as family, it's a business, and a tough one at that--more than half fail in their first three years. As restaurateur Joe Bastianich writes in his tell-all memoir 'Restaurant Man', the number one goal is not to be your friend but to "extract as much money as you can."
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