A sticky point in restaurant etiquette

Before I tell a short story, I’d like to relate the most simple analogy I can think of. No one would take their car to an auto repair shop with a set of brakes they had bought elsewhere and then demand that the mechanic install the brakes for free. Perhaps it’s easier to understand in this case because Auto mechanics separate their bills between parts and labor. The labor charge of course doesn’t only cover the mechanic’s salary. It covers overhead, which is why you can see $60+ an hour billed for someone who makes $20.

Restaurants don’t separate food and labor on our bills, and it creates a conundrum.

We had an unfortunate incident at the restaurant Saturday that has had me sick to my stomach for four days, and I feel like I owe everyone who will hear it an explanation of our policy on outside desserts (and food in general.)

A group of six people seated for brunch and pulled out a box with a cake in it. They unboxed the cake and set it in the center of their table. Adolfo, their server and a gentleman’s gentleman, followed our policy and came to the kitchen to ask me if I knew anything about anyone bringing a cake. This is simply a procedure we have set up. I told Adolfo no, I did not know anything about an outside cake coming in, which put us in a precarious position: we had to explain to them after the cake is in the restaurant and out of the box that there is a $4 per person service charge for serving a cake that is brought in. This is never fun. We greatly prefer if people follow established etiquette and call us ahead of time to inquire as to our policy. Then, once they know we will assess a service charge, they are free to change their plans if they choose.

Adolfo did what he was supposed to do and let the party know about the charge, but there was no way out of disappointing them, since they had not called ahead to inquire and therefore did not likely know about the cost. Predictably, they were not happy, and asked to see the manager, which was me since Mark has Saturday morning off. Since we are in the midst of a sous chef change, I was in the kitchen leading the line during a very busy brunch service. I now had to leave the line to explain to them that the policy is real, the price is not negotiable, and since they didn’t seem to understand, I tried to explain why we charge for outside desserts.

I had left a busy kitchen line and was nervous, and probably came off as an industry novice rather than someone with 25 years under my belt. They stared at me incredulously which didn’t make my job any easier. Yes, after 25 years in the trenches, this party had me shaking as I explained our policy. I held firm, we don’t negotiate the price of a shrimp and grits and we don’t negotiate the price of a cake service charge. They asked for a box to take the cake home, I said of course and ran back to the kitchen to be sure they had kept everything together in my absence. Thank goodness they did.

After fifteen minutes or so, I thought to myself that even though they could have, should have called ahead, the point is that they were now unhappy and that was no good. I did something I don’t usually do in that instance – I told Adolfo to tell the party that I am sorry about any misunderstanding and that as a one time courtesy, we would waive the service charge. They told Adolfo to thank me and enjoyed their cake.

Three days later, two (or maybe three, it’s not clear) of the six have already gone onto Yelp to post negative comments about Big Jones, one of them going so far as to insinuate that I am a sexist! I’d like to take a little space here to explain why restaurants often don’t allow outside desserts, or if they do, why they want compensation for allowing the cake in as a service.

The essence of the issue is that we are providing a service. We have, after much research, internal debate, and more than two years in business, decided upon a price for that service that we believe is reasonable.

Service is an intangible that restaurants sell. There is also the very tangible aspect of the physical venue, which costs money to provide. We actually spend more money on service (payroll, atmosphere, reservations, and payment systems) at Big Jones than we do on food. Rent is our third biggest line item after service and food. The bottom line is that we are providing a venue (physical space, staff, seats, tables, atmosphere, liability insurance) and we incur real costs that we need to recover if we are to continue providing that venue. During a packed brunch service, the consumption of an outside cake may delay or prevent the seating of a guest who wants to enjoy our food in our atmosphere. This is lost revenue, another type of cost.

A very serious issue where I am concerned is liability. Another reason I appreciate when people call ahead about our outside food policy is that I am able to ask them to make sure the dessert remains in their refrigerator from the time it leaves the bakery (or grocery store) until they leave their home and please bring it directly to the restaurant, or have it delivered directly by the bakery. When someone shows up unannounced with a cake, I do not know where it has been, who made it, how old it is, what is in it, and if it has been stored at safe temperatures. I have no idea if the cake is going to make them sick. Will they protect me from their trial lawyers? The fact is that our insurance policy well into 5 figures a year covers all food and drink consumed in my restaurant whether it came from my kitchen or not, because case law has determined that Big Jones can be sued in precisely that instance. When Big Jones provides dessert to your table, I know exactly where everything came from, when it was made, what is in it, and I know it was stored at safe holding temperatures. I know it is safe food.

We so much love it that so many folks pick our restaurant as the place to go for their celebration. We feel that makes our hard work worthwhile, and it also brings up the point of pride. This is very personal and has little to do with the business side of things except that it tells you why we are as good as we are at what we do: we are very proud of our restaurant, our service, our food, our clientele, and our neighborhood. We want to serve you, but we also really want you enjoy our food in our restaurant. If you would like to bring in dessert from outside, we are very proud of our service and are happy to provide you with that service of space and time and labor, but it is a service that has a price.

It’s a common analogy that is brought up amongst industry people, but you wouldn’t bring your own appetizers to a restaurant and expect that to fly. I certainly wouldn’t allow you to bring in a fried chicken and serve it to you on our china. We also make money selling desserts. Food comprises 31% of our cost ledger, and service comprises 37%. This is before rent, utilities, and many other smaller expenses. So, if you aren’t buying the food it is certainly reasonable to expect we recoup our costs on the service end, just as an auto mechanic would still expect you to pay to install your brakes. That is all, we are not trying to stick it to anybody, we just want to bring in enough money to sustain what we are doing. We are accomplishing that, in spite of the complaints of parties like the one I described above. It’s because we, like all successful businesses, expect to be paid for what we provide.

What the party I described above was asking – no, demanding – that I do is allow them to have something for free (a service) that costs money to provide. It’s so disappointing to us now that we have to worry about someone going and posting negative comments about our business online only for asking to be paid for something that we are providing. I wonder if they would take their own brakes to an auto shop and demand that the shop install them for free, then Yelp the auto shop when they received a bill for the service.

Please folks – we are here to serve you and will help you make your party the best it can be in any way we can, but we need to be paid for food and service provided. Call us in advance to discuss your wishes and needs and we can discuss the cost and give you other options. We can make you a cake. The same goes for other restaurants – they are in the same business that we are, and most any restaurant will be happy to serve you. But service comes at a cost, and the way to find out the cost is to pick up the phone. So, please do. We’d love to hear from you.