Can’t Pull the Wool Over a Bruni’s Eyes: The Scam at the Table

There are two items that are guaranteed to stir the pot when mentioned in regards to restaurant dining: tipping and suggestive selling. Earlier this week over at the Diners Journal, Frank Bruni remarked on a precarious encounter with suggestive selling when he realized his waiter’s recommendations, four items in total (two appetizers, two entrees), were adorned with the menus heftiest price tags.

Mr. Bruni chose to recount the evening in “vague” strokes, leaving the opened Pandora’s Box to his readers, many of whom were quick to choose a side, either chastising restaurant employees for unscrupulous practices or to bolster sympathy for employees following strict guidelines.

Although the critic was careful not to make his own conclusions against the server he was clear in noting a series of suspicions.

About the waiters spiel:

“Thought One: they don’t sound that distinctive, that special, so there may be a reason beyond their merits that he’s recommending them.

Thought Two: in terms of their centerpiece ingredients, what these dishes sound is expensive. That’s their common thread.”

So was this an account of a server padding his check? Was this a server pushing unpopular specials for the kitchen? Or was this a sincere interaction between a restaurant guide and his guest?

Frankly, it’s hard to judge the situation without being at the table, and since Mr. Bruni has decided to keep the restaurant ambiguous we can only make assumptions based on our own experiences.

It’s likely that at one point or another in our dining life we have felt imposed upon by a seemingly mediocre recommendation or persuaded into a sub par dish. At this point we often feel cheated or outraged, no different than being scammed on a used car or hoodwinked on a phone plan.

The cold truth is that restaurants are still businesses, their mechanics running on a buy/sell formula conceived to make a profit. Sometimes it’s easy to disengage from that reality when dining, especially since food, good food, can be so personal.

So in Mr. Bruni’s case these are the hypothesis we can make:

  • The waiter chose dishes that were being pushed by the kitchen to prevent spoilage. Although this does happen it seems unlikely here since there were four dishes mentioned, and four dishes to push against spoilage seems like a lot.
  • The waiter was trying to up the check, to benefit his tip, although there are few things here to take in consideration:

First off, if he is trying to pad the check, he can’t be blamed for anything but being tactless and a bad salesman. Again, restaurants are businesses.

Secondly, many restaurants keep tabs on servers’ numbers; sales, tip percentages, the types of products (food and wine) sold, no different then keeping figures on real estate agents.

And thirdly, if the server was merely pointing out the most expensive items on the menu it doesn’t necessarily help the restaurant. Cost plays a huge factor on profit. Most run of the mill restaurants will have a steak dish. That steak dish (filet mignon or Ribeye or New York strip) is usually the most expensive item on the menu. This doesn’t mean it’s the most profitable. It only guarantees that people will order it.

The same runs true for chicken although it’s usually the cheapest item on most menus. Conversely, chicken is more likely to yield a significant profit.

  • The waiter was simply being earnest and the dishes he recommended were, in his opinion, the best on the menu. If Mr. Bruni were keen on playing detective (or critic, ahem) he would have ordered the dishes recommended and discussed them further.

But, alas, I’m generalizing and painting in broad strokes, much like our adored critic, who realizes the issue can’t be resolved to black or white.  Or perhaps it’s an escapade of chance.

Could it ironically be that the waiter simply closed his eyes and pointed to four dishes at random?

~R.K. Gella

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