How restaurants manipulate you into spending more

When I was 13, my dad took my sister and I out to dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe -- the height of coolness for pre-teens in the late '80s. I ordered a virgin Strawberry Daiquiri, and the (cute) waiter asked if I'd like to make it a "double" for just three dollars more. I said yes. My dad shook his head and informed me, "You just got up-sold!" I had never heard the term before, yet understood exactly what it meant.

It's no surprise that restaurant servers try to coax you into spending more: The larger the bill, the larger the tip. I spoke with "Shane" (who requested anonymity), a waiter at an upscale New York City restaurant who revealed his secrets of the up-sell.

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Q: As a server, what's the easiest menu item to up-sell?

A: Drinks. I'll always ask the table if they would like to start with a cocktail, and if a customer asks for a martini, I'll ask, "Do you have a preference on the vodka or gin?" Then I'll list off our premium brands. The customer will almost always end up going top-shelf. With wine, if three people at a four-top order wine by the glass, I always suggest that they order a bottle. I can sell a $40 bottle of wine as opposed to three $8 glasses.

Q: What about expensive sparkling or bottled water -- how do you get people to choose these options instead of tap?

A: Bottled water is a big money-maker for restaurants. I always ask if the table wants "sparkling, still, or tap". I'll usually mumble the word "tap". I keep an eye out for beverage levels and refill glasses once they're half empty. You move more water that way. Sparkling water isn't listed on many menus, so oftentimes a customer doesn't know how much he or she is being charged -- until they get the bill.

Q: What about nightly specials, which aren't typically listed on the menu. Do you tend to push these dishes because they tend to be more expensive?

A: It varies, but nightly specials are quite often pricier. People love to order the specials -- often it's just the psychology of someone describing this incredible dish in detail, it has a powerful effect. And I won't tell you the price of the specials unless you ask.

Q: How would you persuade someone to order more, or more expensively, if they've made up their mind?

A: If someone orders just an entrée, I always ask if they would like to start with a soup or hot appetizer. It's hard to tempt people with salad. At [Restaurant X] we have a signature artichoke-cheese dip, which sells very well. It's hard to resist.

Q: What about when your server tells you, "If you'd like to order the halibut, I'd suggest doing so now, as there are only two left"? Do servers ever fake scarcity of higher-end items to persuade customers to order them?

A: I've personally never done that, and no decent server would outright lie to you. But, yes, when I hear from the back-of-the-house that we're running out of a popular dish, I'll let my tables know. People will jump on it if it's in limited supply. It's just like in real estate or car sales. You know, "I have another couple who is very interested, they're coming down in an hour…" People want what they can't have, or what everyone else wants.

Q: What about desserts?

A: Moving desserts is a big priority. With dessert you can also sell coffee, cappuccino, after-dinner drinks. I never ask if the table wants dessert -- I just bring the dessert menu. Then I'll describe a house favorite. Usually, one person will cave in and order, others join in, and it's the domino effect. Another trick is always walking the really elaborate desserts through the floor, slowly, so other patrons can see them. This is the whole point of the dessert cart -- It's building up that desire.

Have you ever spent more than you anticipated because of a clever server? Or, are you a server who knows more tricks of the trade? Share your stories with us!