The economics of free bread
August 30, 2009 2:09 AM   Subscribe

What's the business benefit of free bread at restaurants?

I've been to several restaurants that offer free bread / rolls / tortilla chips / etc. in unlimited quantities to patrons as soon as they sit down. How does this make sense from a business perspective?

It seems to me that eating a bunch of free bread upon sitting down will take away the initial pangs of hunger and reduce the amount of food that one is likely to order. In addition, if a customer fills up on free bread at the beginning of the meal, that customer will be less hungry for dessert at the end.

Clearly I'm missing something, otherwise restaurants wouldn't do this. So what makes this practice worthwhile?
posted by nayrb5 to Food & Drink (27 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Maybe they can ply one more drink order out of you; surely drinks have the highest profit margin. You came to order an entre; you're going to do so no matter what, especially if you brought company. They don't care if you don't finish it.
posted by fatllama at 2:13 AM on August 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

It keeps people from starving to death in your restaurant, which is never good for PR. And, by propping up patron's blood sugar, it keeps them from being as boorish to waitstaff as they might be on empty stomachs, which, in turn, helps diminish employee turnover and training costs. Finally, it gives patrons who are meeting under tense circumstances something non-lethal to throw, if they are going to throw something, before you send out the heavy crockery.
posted by paulsc at 2:17 AM on August 30, 2009 [8 favorites]

It gives you something to do while the waitstaff is otherwise occupied, so you're less likely to become really impatient or dissatisfied. If it's something salty, you might buy another drink.
posted by beerbajay at 2:17 AM on August 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yeah, more drinks + feeling attended to + ability to offer you something unique/memorable if they've got it.
posted by mdonley at 2:25 AM on August 30, 2009

Best answer: Bread (totillas, poppadums etc) are relatively inexpensive foodstuffs that many patrons expect to be "given" to them when they sit down to eat a restaurant meal. The cost is factored into the pricing of the menu just like the cost of the "free" carry-bags is factored into the price of things at the grocery store.

Having something to nibble on has an immediate effect on the salivary glands and your appetite too... making you feel hungry.

Other reasons include traditional notions of hospitality including largesse and surfeit.

In European-style restaurants the portions of vegetables and meat or fish served as "mains" are often smaller than what many people would prepare and consume in their own homes or places like pubs or diners. The free bread (or whatever cheap starchy stuff they are offering) can off-set that "it was delicious but the portions were small" reaction many people have to restaurant food.

The portions are actually usually spot-on from a nutritional perspective!
posted by evil_esto at 2:34 AM on August 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Loss Leader.
posted by fatllama at 2:41 AM on August 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

Customers like to think they're getting a good deal and free stuff always creates that illusion. When you couple that with the above mentioned notions of feeling like they're being attended to while they wait, the end result is the desire to come back again which generates repeat business.
posted by Rhomboid at 3:00 AM on August 30, 2009

As an aside, I just returned from Italy (first time there) and was surprised to discover that bread served never included olive oil and/or butter. Always just plain bread. But the sauces so great that dipping a pleasure.
posted by Postroad at 3:08 AM on August 30, 2009

A lot of it is just expectation -- it has been done that way for many years, and people expect it of restaurants of a certain caliber, so whether you are a restaurant of that caliber, or want to appear to be, you offer the bread. If you take the bread away, people will get pissed off and complain that the restaurant in question is cheap or tacky and post on Chowhound words like 'It's just bread, fercrissakes, how much could it possibly cost?' Trust me on that last point.
posted by jacquilynne at 4:54 AM on August 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

Well, if you do bread and butter really well, like Texas Roadhouse does, you can get people to come in the door just for that. I know I've got friends that go for the rolls. I've also got friends that pick Mexican food places based on the chips and salsa.
posted by magikker at 6:08 AM on August 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I know I'm repeating a bit of what's been said already, but I think that there are a few key factors (and I say this as someone who has worked many hours waiting tables at his family's restaurant/bakery, a restaurant/bakery which, as you might guess, doles out ridiculous amounts of free bread to its patrons):

1) The irritable customer. Having bread to distribute to hungry customers is a great way to keep them focused on anything but the wait time between sitting down and eating lunch or dinner. When you are hungry and there's nothing to nibble on, ten minutes will seem like half an hour, and all of sudden this restaurant is full of lazy employees and OH MY GOD WHY IS THE WAITER SERVING THEM THEIR FOOD WHEN I WAS HERE FIVE MINUTES BEFORE THEM.

With a little bread to nibble on, customers can focus on the food and/or each other. I've waited tables when we've run out of bread or when there's just not enough time to cut more, and it's surprising how quickly a group of customers turn snippy.

2) The hunger issue. Although eating a ton of bread might affect dessert orders (though more on this later), it probably won't lead customers to order a smaller meal. There are exceptions (those few who come knowing that there will be free bread, for example), but they are anomalies, as the vast majority of people won't be affected by their starchy nibblings, in terms of hunger pangs, until the meal has almost arrived. It takes some time to digest and process the food you're eating (by some accounts it's a full 20 minutes before proper stomach to brain feedback), so unless customers order bread and then wait a half hour before putting in a food order, there isn't much risk of the restaurant losing orders to free bread. Also, as for dessert- it's my personal experience that craving something sweet has almost zero to do with how full you are. Our restaurant also specializes in pastries and cakes, and it's never a hard sell. Ever. Even if someone has just eaten so much that they look sick. They will order dessert.

3) The deliciousness factor. At our restaurant we bake dozens of unique and delicious breads every day, and part of our shtick is that you get to try a lot of these breads before you eat. As was mentioned earlier, having some delicious little gimmick is the the best form of advertising for any restaurant. If someone says 'Restaurant X has a great quality/price ratio' you might never think to go there, but if they say 'Restaurant Y's walnut-apricot bread- which they give you for free- is the' all of a sudden, when you're hungry and craving nutty bread, you think to go to Y instead of X. I know it sounds gimmicky, but I know it's true for me. I've eaten shitty barbecue because of free cheese biscuits, crappy steaks because of yeast rolls... you get the idea. On a side note, I propose that some places know to serve REALLY gross and greasy foods at the start, like cheese biscuits and buttery rolls, because when you walk in famished they are delicious, though if you try to eat one later, towards the end of the meal, it's just terrible. Such foods satisfy our deep evolutionary cravings, and when those deep cravings go away you're holding a cheddar butter ball in your greasy fingers, wondering how you got there (in the troubling existential sense, unless you've actually eaten so much you forgot where you parked the car).

4) A cost/benefit analysis. Yes, there are exceptions- and you've probably noticed them. I myself am particularly prone to notice people to 'cheat' the system since their bread and butter is essentially taking away my bread and butter. Also, there are those who fill up on bread, take the food to go, and might therefore be less likely to eat out the next day, etc, etc. But when you weigh the options, free bread makes for happier, more satisfied customers who are more likely to spread good words about your establishment.
posted by farishta at 6:20 AM on August 30, 2009 [14 favorites]

A lot of good specifics have already been posted, but it all adds up to creating a good dining experience that people will choose to revisit. You could ask the same question about decor, choice of lighting, the music they play, how the seating is arranged, or any of a hundred specifics. In the end, all those choices are made to give an overall experience that people will be happy to pay for.
posted by The Deej at 8:05 AM on August 30, 2009

I think another part of it might be that while bread may make you feel momentarily full, the kind of white bread and chips served as "loss leaders" by restaurants usually have a high glycemic index, which means that they are likely to make you feel hungrier soon after eating them and increase your craving for carby stuff like drinks and desserts.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 8:09 AM on August 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Coming at it from the other way, I now live in the UK, where free *anything* is very uncommon and being presented with complimentary carbs (let alone unsolicited tap water) in a restaurant would bring tears of astonished gratitude to my eyes.

What previous posters have said is true. Not being given anything to nibble on leads to hunger-induced bad temper and impatience with wait staff. It also tells me the management are so stingy and ill-informed that they're unwilling to give a little to gain my good will. This is a warning sign that they're likely to be cutting corners in the kitchen as well.

Most of all, it's about good relationships. Generosity breeds generosity. Blatant stinginess tells me I'm not a guest but a micro-calculated revenue source who's there to be fleeced -- I mean, I'm not even worth the expense of a free basket of bread? Not a good way to start off. Being given something for free as soon as I sit down establishes the customer/business relationship in an atmosphere of generosity and welcome -- and, as marketers have known for ages, creates a sense of obligation. This is likely to make me spend more time and money than I may have intended in a restaurant. Being treated like a potential profit sink on whom no expense should be spent makes me antagonistic towards the restaurant. In those circumstances I usually don't fork out a penny more than is required to fill my belly.
posted by stuck on an island at 8:19 AM on August 30, 2009

Another reason: some less-fancy chain places that do this offer "all the XXXX you can eat". Patrons who've filled up on bread eat less per order.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 8:25 AM on August 30, 2009

It's a restaurant, so you don't want people feeling hungry. I doubt people order less food, they just might have more food to take home, which leaves the customer feeling good, because they left the restaurant so full they couldn't eat everything. Finally, bread is something quick and easy and delicious that people can nibble on.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:56 AM on August 30, 2009

Free bread and such can also lead to patrons ordering other items. In a fancy schmancy tapas/wine bar I used to work at virtually every dish came with a never-ending stream of hot crusty bread. If you happen to suck down your serrano and still have bread left over, maybe you like a bit of cheese as well, or maybe some extra virgin olive oil.

But yeah, mostly its a super cheap way of calming the nerves and soothing the stomachs of your clientele.
posted by Panjandrum at 9:01 AM on August 30, 2009

it gives patrons who are meeting under tense circumstances something non-lethal to throw

Sometimes the bread gets thrown at the patrons.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:43 AM on August 30, 2009

It's also important to keep in mind just how cheap bread and similar items are. If you buy in bulk, you can make a loaf of bread or heat a bowl of tortilla chips for only pennies.
posted by Ms. Saint at 9:48 AM on August 30, 2009

At a nice restaurant, the cost of bread is not insignificant. In the last joint where I worked, a wine/tapas bar, in order to provide bread that was of a caliber similar to that of the food we served, it cost around $100 a night, sometimes more on the weekend. The owners hated it, the servers hated it and the kitchen staff hated it (because they had to make the tapenade to go with the bread). We kept doing it because taking the financial hit was easier than explaining to customers why we didn't provide the bread they expected. As it was a tapas place, I can definitely say that folks who consumed multiple plates of bread ordered fewer dishes, and it was a royal pain in the ass to keep bringing bread to people when you knew that it was going to decrease the cost of their meal and consequently your earnings.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 10:46 AM on August 30, 2009

Nthing the value added strategy. A Mexican place downtown that serves great food will always have that caveat in my mind that they don't give you a basket of tortilla chips when you sit down; you have to order the chips and salsa. Cheap cheap cheap.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 10:51 AM on August 30, 2009

Chips and other salty snacks are served for a different reason than bread - salt makes you thirsty, which makes you more likely to order high margin beverages.

Bread is generally provided because it's expected. I can't find the article, but earlier this year or last year sometime wheat prices were skyrocketing, making bread pretty expensive to simply give away, so some restaurants either stopped giving away bread or only providing it upon request. Restaurants that did so found that their business dropped, so they ended up loosing more money in the end.
posted by dchase at 11:56 AM on August 30, 2009

Best answer: Not to belabor the obvious, but people generally go out to eat because they're hungry. As these people consider their options, you have a.) the non-bread/chips restaurant, where you're going to have to sit with that hunger for a while, or b.) the bread/chips restaurant, where soon after you sit down you've taken the edge off of that hunger and are enjoying yourself.

Psychological study after psychological study has found that people are less likely to choose the delayed gratification option in such situations. Bread and chips thus become an inexpensive way for a restaurant to offer instant gratification.
posted by dacoit at 1:15 PM on August 30, 2009

Here in Tucson chips and salsa at the table are pretty much the norm given our plethora of Mexican restaurants. And you know what the best thing about chips and salsa is? It means that you get to start eating right when you sit down. If I'm hungry, I hate to wait an extra ten minutes to start eating, even if it's delicious food. But you get that chips and salsa going, and we're relaxing and chatting, and if it takes a little longer for the food to get there, so what? When the food does get there, the edge is off the hunger, and I'm not so starving that I'm wolfing down my food, which means I have a chance to actually taste and enjoy it. The chips and salsa does cost the restaurant some money (although chips are cheap in bulk out here) but it's a small price to pay for that extra piece of the puzzle that makes people not only return, but recommend a place to their friends.
posted by azpenguin at 4:04 PM on August 30, 2009

It's a genuine as well as symbolic gesture of kindness, welcome, and hospitality (all things one wants to give and receive in the guest-host relationship). To break bread with guests alligns one with a deep, daresay even religious, tradition of hospitality with a lineage hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years long.
posted by Muirwylde at 1:33 AM on August 31, 2009

I'd think it would be very hard for the customer to distinguish between free bread/chips, and bread/chips where the cost is distributed throughout other menu items.
posted by advil at 7:00 AM on August 31, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the great answers...I hadn't thought about the multiple benefits to the business of building goodwill and keeping customers from getting antsy!
posted by nayrb5 at 4:17 PM on September 12, 2009

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