Restaurant 101: It’s Complicated

It’s a contentious question in the operation of a restaurant, when to comp or not to comp? Is it better to send an appetizer or dessert to a guest who dines with you frequently, or to bank those freebies to compensate for errors made during service?
Each restaurant is different. Sometimes, the policy is to make new guests and regulars feel incredibly welcome, by:
·      Sending a complimentary amuse bouche or appetizer to first time diners
·      Sending complimentary appetizer, or additional new dish to regulars to get their opinion on it.
·      Getting a freebie dessert on the table for birthdays or anniversaries (see more on that here)
It’s a preventative, positive reinforcement method. Other restaurants feel that consistently great food and service are enough to hit the right note of warmth and welcome.
So they reserve their comps to smooth over any multitude of kerfluffles that can occur tableside. With any human invention, errors are inevitable from time to time. When, in the course of human events, any of the following occurs,
·      The order ticket gets lost in the kitchen (yes, this does happen sometimes)
·      The establishment is out of the wine (dessert, entrée) the guest ordered
·      A guest waited more than 5 minutes for a table when they had a reservation
·      the server is rude, (awkward, sick, inattentive, overly familiar, etc.)
·      the busboy throws away the ½ of a $40 ribeye steak that you wanted to take home and cook up as steak and eggs in the morning
There should be some icing spread over the top of that awkward cake.

And that ‘something’ can take the form of a round of drinks, all the way up to comping the entire check. For the incidents above, respectively:
·      comping the entrees, or the entire check, (depending on how long it takes for the food to actually hit the table)
·      A round drinks, or 50% off a different bottle of wine (dessert, entree, etc.)
·      Appetizers on the house, or a round of drinks
·      Re-assign the table to another server, send apps or desserts, all the way up to taking care of the whole check (depending on how bad it got)
·      Gift card, or an entire new steak to-go (depending on how long the guest is comfortable waiting)
Then there are comps as bouncebacks—things that bring the guest back in, to experience the food and service that are more indicative of the establishment under normal conditions. These are things such as:
·      a promise to take care of drinks or desserts next time around (usually accompanied by the manager’s business card)
·      a giftcard or coupon for a discount when the guests return
So, if the owner or management of a restaurant is serious about guest satisfaction, there are myriad options for them to rectify the situation.  It gets really touchy as a manager, though, when you have done everything you can to catch a situation as it develops in the restaurant, to acknowledge the errors, and to compensate for them, only to be dinged later on Yelp, or similar review sites.
The guests leave happy, accept all the comps and adjustments you send, then go home to write a terrible review. Those reviews always fail to mention that the errors were acknowledged and compensated for by the restaurant.  It’s completely within these guests’ rights to do– free speech and all that– but it stings when we see it on the other side.

Who’s Picking up the Bill?

Q: I have been to this “fine dining” restaurant a bunch of times. The owner knows me and my usual dinner-date. We almost always have a bottle of wine, two entrees and either an app or a dessert. We tip well.

We went last week, and my date ordered the same thing as always. It was great, as always. I am the adventurer, and I will often try the special or newest item on the menu. I’ve had “hits” and I’ve had “misses.” This time it was “seitan steak.” The owner is vegetarian, and I always order vegetarian items. I trust him, and I want to support culinary creativity. The seitan steak was HORRIBLE. So bad that McDonald’s would not have put it on a bun. I was hungry and stomached about half of it.

When the very friendly waiter came to check, we explained to him (politely) that the seitan was not the best addition to the menu. In fact, I offered a bite, and he took it. He agreed. It was HORRIBLE. He even said that the chef (not the owner, who was out of town), when plating the food, said “I don’t even know why we serve seitan.”

Instead of comp-ing the $19 entree, he offered free dessert. We accepted. Dessert was fine – nothing remarkable. He should have comp-ed the entree…no?


A: First off, let me say, that you sound like an absolutely delightful diner. A regular, great tipper, open to a new experience… I’d love to have you in my dining room anytime!

On to the server, though….there is a difference between being friendly and overly familiar. I’m going to assume that the server recognized you as a regular, but he should never hate on the menu like that at a table. Apologize, definitely, but don’t get the guests involved in what sounds like a personal power-struggle between the owner and the chef; just take the dish back to the kitchen, and send a manager to the table.
It’s also strange that a manager didn’t seem to drop by your table. Anytime a dish goes back to the kitchen, a front of house manager should come by the table to apologize, and try to gain some feedback for the chef to possibly improve the dish. 

To comp or not to comp? It’s one of the murkiest areas in hospitality. Some owners have extremely conservative comp policies, while others are more generous. But the ultimate goal should be to satisfy the guest. You didn’t go out to play menu-roulette; you wanted to have a great meal. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect that everything on their menu is tasty. It’s generally accepted that if a dish is  “under-enjoyed”; it should come off the check. Sending dessert or any additional comp is up for debate (but I usually err on the side of generosity).
Since you are still thinking about this incident days later, this restaurant missed an opportunity to make you feel like the welcome regular you are.

Considering all of the variables above, I would say the Restaurant is stuck with the Bill on this one. The manager should have taken the Seitan steak off the check, definitely, in addition to sending out a dessert or a round of after-dinner drinks.  -m

If you’ve had a weird experience at a restaurant, I’d love to hear about it! submit your story by clicking on the “Who’s Picking up the Bill” button on the right.