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Do Customers Get Bread or Not?

Do Customers Get Bread or Not?

I was with a bunch of friends recently when we decided to have a late-night dinner. We had too much to drink, too little to eat and we were starved. The restaurant staff was on the ball; menus and glasses of water reached our table quickly. But while we were poring over the menu and knowing full well that food would not likely arrive for at least a half hour, one of us said out loud: “I sure hope they bring bread.” They did not.

We were in a Mediterranean restaurant, so the thought that bread might be served was not unrealistic, especially since at one time it was part of the service routine. Somewhere along the way a decision was made to stop the practice. A couple people at the table were annoyed.

I was not. The economy still has a stranglehold on this industry and margins are tight.

I was annoyed, however, at a neighboring restaurant that at one time offered bread as a courtesy, but then recently began to charge for it. The same economic rules apply, but in this case it was just bad form to begin charging for something that at one time was gratis. You may have other thoughts about this.

I also have an issue with restaurants that offer free, but poor-quality bread. It suggests that you feel obligated to offer it, but don't care enough to offer something decent. Isn't it better to serve no bread than bad bread?

On the other hand, when great, artisan-quality bread is served, you just can't help but feel good about the restaurant. Bread of this quality does not come cheaply, but those who offer it have a leg up on those who don't, at least in terms of customer relations.

Nevertheless, if I ran a restaurant, I'm not so sure I would offer free bread. As happy as customers may be to receive it, you're basically filling their stomachs before they ever place an order. I would think this would cut down on how much customers order. Appetizer sales would likely suffer, no? Or does good bread stimulate one's appetite? You tell me.

I mentioned this bread/no-bread quandary to a colleague and she pointed to the tradition at most Mexican restaurants of serving free salsa and chips when customers are seated. Surely, most customers would be put off if this practice was discontinued or, worse yet, they were charged for it.

Another colleague jumped in on the conversation and said there is no such thing as free this or that. The cost of the bread, the chips or whatever you put before guests for free at the beginning of the meal is offset by higher menu prices.

This is hardly a towering subject, but the little details can make or break a dining experience. What are you doing out there? Do you offer free bread or something else before the meal, or are you dead set against it? What's the philosophy behind your decision? Email me and I'll share your thoughts.