Fast food/QSR-filter: Who typically gets their meal comped? And why?
March 9, 2014 7:02 AM   Subscribe

I am trying to compile a list of who typically can expect to receive a free meal at fast food, casual dining, or quick service restaurants. One example would be uniformed police officers. I'd like to hear from people who worked in such places or know about these things.

Other examples might be bus drivers bringing a load of passengers or in some cases athletic coaches bringing their entire team. I assume the rationale is some kind of a "group discount" for bringing in so many paying customers. A while back, I was with a group of Red Cross volunteers who were comped. I assume that was a thank you for coming to help the nearby community (similar to the police).

So who typically gets a free meal? And what is the reasoning? For the sake of this question, I am excluding dissatisfied customers and people who know one of the employees.
posted by 99percentfake to Work & Money (39 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
At the coffee shop where I work, I was surprised to see that uniformed police officers and the like (who we see many of) don't get free coffee or anything. The only person who gets free drinks is the chatty security guard who has to stop buy multiple times a day on rounds. My feeling is that he makes a lot less than the police officers do. Also, at some point he probably asked. The police officers don't ask.
posted by needs more cowbell at 7:14 AM on March 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Unfortunately, that is about the only group of people who routinely get comped. However, the rules differ depending on the jurisdiction- some departments don't allow free meals for their officers.

The only other people who would get this kind of courtesy would be the mailman and the UPS/Fedex drivers. They generally had a routine, though. The mail carrier at one place I worked got some kind of drink every day. The other drivers would grab a meal once a week or so, depending on their route.

Another thing we did was to let neighbor businesses slide on some rules, like free refills. If they bought a drink in the morning, they could come over and refill it all day.

As a manager, we had wide discretion to do things like this, but the general rule might be that it was limited to regular visitors, and people like handymen and plumbers. If you would offer them a drink or meal in your own home, you would probably do the same when they visited the restaurant. That was one of the more enjoyable parts of the job, and also (to be cynical about it), these practices almost always paid back more than they cost in goodwill.
posted by gjc at 7:31 AM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

When I worked in a convenience store in college police officers got free coffee and donuts.
posted by COD at 7:43 AM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I used to work at a vet's office adjacent to a coffee shop. We always got free soda and usually freebies included with our meals (two bags of chips instead of one, chocolate chip cookie, that sort of thing). Most of the employees knew us because we were the only ones walking in there with purple (!!!) scrubs on and we usually got food there at least once per 12 hour shift. We also sent a lot of business their way--if we needed to take Fluffy in the back to run some tests that would only take 45 minutes or so, we encouraged clients to run errands or grab a coffee next door.
posted by gumtree at 7:57 AM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I suppose if you WORK at said restaurant, you might get a free meal as part of working a long shift?
posted by Elly Vortex at 8:11 AM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

This happens sometimes (holidays or extraordinary circumstances) for uniformed military and/or veterans. (Obviously limited, otherwise joints around military bases would be bankrupt within the week.)

I can't speak to this one because I've never seen it, but I wonder if on-duty firefighters get comp'ed the way police officers stereotypically do.
posted by blue suede stockings at 8:17 AM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

At my grandmothers store, firemen, policemen, the owner of the restaurant next door and any uniformed military person would usually get their soda/coffee for free. My Grandmother sometimes would give them their sandwiches for free. And family every once in a while. Oh, and sometimes celebrities.
posted by KogeLiz at 8:22 AM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Small non-chain restaurants may have contracts with outside vendors to bring in desserts or other menu items not made in-house. I made desserts for a restaurant for a few years, baking off-site and bringing them in as needed. I wasn't directly an employee, and sometimes only dropped by once a week, but pretty quickly fell into the category of "familiar face" and was always offered at least a free drink by any employees or managers I encountered.

When I visited the restaurant "socially," i.e. not on a delivery, my meal was usually comped or at least extremely discounted (50% / free alcohol), even when I was with someone. I quit this job several years ago, but I doubt they'd let me pay for a meal if I went in today.

My brother has had the same experience delivering ice cream to various establishments. I would guess this is true for many vendors and delivery people who become familiar faces.
posted by jessicapierce at 8:32 AM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

As a rule, police (and probably all emergency service workers) are actually not allowed to accept freebies. This was always a question in interviews. Departments want to avoid any perception of preferential treatment. I'm not saying it doesn't happen and will of course depend on the department but that's the generally accepted practice and certainly the official party line. (I'm not a police officer. I just tried to be one for a while.)

Anecdotally, I got a free sandwich a couple of weeks ago at one of local health food store for writing "thank you" at the end of my order form. It was a nice surprise but I was kind of bummed on their behalf that apparently people aren't saying thank you to them enough.
posted by Beti at 8:41 AM on March 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

I service commercial dishwashers for a living. While not all of my customers comp my lunch, I probably eat free three times a week, so it's very common.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:43 AM on March 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Regulars who tip well often get a little something. Regulars who are fun and tip well are especially liable to be given freebies. A complementary app or a dessert or a drink.

One of the servers we knew from one restaurant popped up at another place. It was great to see her and she gave us a discount on the check.

If something is happening, if your server has a huge and demanding table and you're patient and understanding, often you'll get comped something just for being a mench.

So my advice, be a mench.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:50 AM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I used to work in the gift shop and cafe on top of Pikes Peak many years ago. We'd comp rangers and forest service folks any food they wanted. Bus drivers and train conductors got coffee and doughnuts for free.
posted by mochapickle at 9:23 AM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Long time ago I knew someone that worked night shifts at a Dunkin' Donuts. The owner's policy was to comp any law enforcement officer that came in AND ate at the store. Seeing cops inside the store all the time was an obvious security advantage.
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:23 AM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

(Oh, and all the racecar drivers (and media) who did Race to the Clouds could have whatever food they wanted. I served many a chili dog to many an Unser during those years.)
posted by mochapickle at 9:25 AM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

When I worked at Dairy Queen in high school we always comped cute girls.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 9:43 AM on March 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

An paramedic friend of mine used to get either free coffee or the occasional extra thrown in for free at Starbucks. I'm assuming the store manager would have some leeway about a policy like that.

Seconding what Ruthless Bunny said about regulars. When I was a regular at my wonderful hole in the wall independent neighborhood coffee roaster (regular as in stopped in to get coffee and shoot the breeze for a few minutes almost every Monday-Friday morning for a year or so) I pretty regularly got free extras or upgrades, often in the form of a shot of espresso.
posted by usonian at 10:31 AM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

When I worked at a 7-11 store over 25 years ago, the owner's policy was that police could have anything that wasn't packaged shut. For example, they could have all the fountain soda, slurpees, coffee, hot dogs, nachos, or any premade (in store) sandwiches they wanted. We had to charge them for bottles or cans of soda or frozen burritos that needed to be microwaved. I guess he was losing less $$ by limiting it to those low overhead items? On a side note, the owner also told us to be nice to any police that came in (as if I wouldn't?) and get them to hang out because the owner felt it was an extra security feature that people drove by and saw the police cars in the parking lot.

On the other side of the coin, I have a family member that is a police officer and he refuses to take any kind of free food or drink. Mostly because he feels that he can afford his own food but also because he doesn't want people to see him taking advantage of his position.

My local Chik-fil-a is known for giving away free food- especially when they switch from breakfast to lunch and have to clear what they haven't sold.

Denny's used to give a free meal if it was your birthday. Pretty much any restaurant I've been to for birthday dinners comps the slice of cake they bring -sometimes singing- to your table.

I worked at a diner where if you worked an 8 hour shift, you were comped a meal at your lunch/dinner break. Any other shift, you could get 50% off one meal when you were done your shift. I've also been comped a "shift drink" (cocktail/beer/wine) at the end of my shift.

Oh and I was in a "wedding/top 40 band" and occasionally we were comped drinks and food.
posted by NoraCharles at 10:32 AM on March 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have a good friend who is an EMT, and restaurants do comp small free meals for him. Pretty often, too - especially places like bagel shops. He definitely doesn't expect people to give him free stuff, but of course he appreciates it when they do. Sometimes, he and his co-workers will be eating a restaurant meal, and then get a call. As I recall, that's when some restaurant proprietors will say, "don't worry about it, it's on us."

That same friend and I were regulars at a local pizza restaurant for several years, and we tipped very well out of affection for the cool waitresses. Unintended but nice result: They gave us a lot of free key lime pie over the years.

Also: When I worked in a grocery store bakery, I gave a box of cookies to the firefighters who convinced my sick co-worker to go to the hospital. I had limited power over how I could thank them, but I sure as hell could slip them a box of 30+ fancy cookies.
posted by Coatlicue at 10:46 AM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have a friend who is a police officer in Brooklyn. It is against regulations for cops to take "freebies", but he told me that it is typical for vendors on his beat to get around this by giving him too much change when he buys a sandwich or hot dog (for example, he gets $9 back from a $10 bill when buying a sandwich, fries and soft drink from a kiosk).
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:33 AM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think it's pretty common for independent coffee shops to occasionally comp regulars or give them extras. Also in malls or shopping districts there are sometimes informal (or formal) reciprocal comp/discount agreements.

I don't know if this is what you're looking for, but some places will give you a treat for your dog. I used to live in New Orleans, where snowball stands (similar to sno-cones) are really popular in the hot summer. If they see you have a dog with you they'll often hand you a cup of plain snow/ice for the dog.
posted by radioamy at 11:48 AM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Drink tickets! Musicians at rock clubs almost always get a parcel of free drink tickets to use during the evening. Free food is also common if there's a kitchen at the venue or the management is sympathetic to struggling bands. When you're an established touring act these amenities are written into the performance contract between the group and venue, but they are common perks for smaller, or local, musicians as well.
posted by greenland at 11:56 AM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I attended a funeral yesterday for the owner of a renowned local Greek restaurant. As part of the eulogy, the priest made a jokey reference to never having to pay for a meal there.
posted by raisingsand at 12:14 PM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I know paramedics in uniform get comped meals at one or two local restaurants
posted by peppermind at 12:32 PM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Firefighters usually don't get comped meals; occasionally, someone in the grocery store might buy us lunch. (True story: a few years ago I was buying food to cook for lunch and I pulled out my personal credit card. The lady in front of me asked what I was doing, as apparently a lot of folks think the municipality/department pays for our meals. I explained that we paid for our own food, and she paid our grocery tab!) Additionally, we pay for our own newspapers, premium cable tv, residential internet, etc. Our employers provide electricity, water, and a bed; that's about it.

If it's a restaurant we frequent, we might receive a 10-50% discount on duty. We aren't supposed to ask for it; they know, we know, and no one says anything. Occasionally, I'll be out off-duty eating, and I'll still get a discount if I'm recognized, which I attempt to refuse. It doesn't work, and I still pay a fraction of the price.

Law enforcement, however, get whatever they want. And they make more money than we do! Buttheads.
posted by sara is disenchanted at 1:01 PM on March 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

My father is a postal worker. His route is mostly commercial with quite a few small restaurants and cafes. Somewhere along the way he always gets lunch or something to drink. They often have food waiting for him.
posted by Danila at 1:34 PM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I suppose if you WORK at said restaurant, you might get a free meal as part of working a long shift?

This is known as staff (or family) meal. Basically anything above QSR, if you work in a restaurant you are getting a free meal per shift.

Apart from responding to complaints, in my experience most of the time comps go to regulars as kind of an informal "Buy 8 get 1 free" loyalty program, and friends of employees. (But sometimes employees will actually buy whatever and say it was comped). Every restaurant I've worked in, any repair/service people would always at least be offered something to drink (soft, obvs) while working and a meal when done if they were there for more than 1/2 hour or so. Delivery people, no, specialty suppliers sometimes (e.g. "The product you brought me yesterday was amazing, want to try what we're doing with it?" wasn't infrequent in those cases). Almost everywhere will do something free on your birthday, if they know it's your birthday.

Some chefs/managers will surprise-comp people from time to time, especially desserts on tables that are obviously celebrating an anniversary or just got engaged in the restaurant. One chef I worked under had a policy of sending a blank bill to tables that had just gotten engaged with just the word Congratulations scrawled across it. I thought that was pretty sweet actually.

I've only worked at one restaurant that would get busloads of people unexpectedly, and bulk discounts were offered in two ways:

1) If we knew about it ahead of time, there'd be a set menu of 2 apps/3 main/2 dessert, so it was just your standard group discount kind of thing.

2) If we didn't know about it (far more frequent; we were attached to but not part of a hotel), there'd be a judgement call by the manager. Bunch of forty-fiftysomethings on some sort of package tour? Probably not; the possible gain for the restaurant in extending comps or reduced rate there is pretty minimal. Bus full of people attending a conference in the hotel next door? Probably yes, because they're virtually a captive audience for the next few days, so get them in on a group rate first then charge normal pricing when they come in twos and fours. (Sometimes a conference would negotiate special rates for badgeholders, but that was pretty uncommon). If we were faced with a surprise busload of kids, the managers would usually offer something fast and discounted to minimize potential disruption to the rest of the dining room by getting them in and out as fast as possible.

I have seen police come in uniform, be offered something free, and the officer responding "Thank you, but we can't accept that" and paying.

At my current part-time work, we offer a 10% discount to servicemembers in uniform. Pure pragmatism; we're near a military facility so again, captive audience.

Basically, offering comps is exactly the same as all other marketing: to create goodwill and happy feelings about the product so you go back and spend more money, and tell your friends to do the same. Or making an association between your product and something aspirational (e.g. Chez Maison comped a bunch of Red Cross people, everyone who knows about it is going to be more likely to go spend money there because they're now associated with being good/socially responsible/whatevs).

So when you're not patching over mistakes with free product, or getting your friends hooked up, you're mostly either thanking regulars for their continued business, or offering a slight loss for more business later.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:36 PM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I used to work at a Pizza Hut in a very small town. The manager's brother was a county sheriff's deputy, and the town police would give the closing supervisor an escort to the bank to the deposit the money after closing, so basically any uniformed officer was given a free to-go drink if they asked for it (and they all knew to ask for it). This was a franchise, though, not a corporate store.
posted by candyland at 2:39 PM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I used to work at a McDonald's that was dreadful in many ways, but charming in one: there was an elderly (mid-80s, at least) man who came in ever day at eleven to eat his lunch. Every day he paid for a cheeseburger and glass of water, and every day we gave him a cheeseburger, a glass of water, and a small fry. It was so much a part of the culture that it was explained to me on my first day there: that guy who just walked in, he doesn't order, and he gives you a dollar for the cheeseburger, and you give him a tray set up like this. I have no idea what prompted this, but I thought it was very sweet.

A diner I worked for briefly gave a 50% discount to anyone who worked for the diner or its parent corp, and a (lesser but unremembered) discount to people who worked in the surrounding stores.
posted by MeghanC at 5:49 PM on March 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

I worked in fast food in New Zealand (at Kentucky Fried Chicken). We had a "military discount" for uniformed army guys from the nearby army base. It wasn't totally free though. That was the only special category.
posted by lollusc at 6:13 PM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, and the bus driver who did the last shift of the night from the stop outside our restaurant got a free meal, but that was entirely under-the-table - the manager would not have approved it, but the manager was no longer there at 2am. And the bus driver would always wait for us if we were late closing up, and would drop us to our doors instead of the nearest bus stop if there was no one on the bus, so a couple of drumsticks and a mashed potato was the least we could do in return.

NoraCharles' point about things that are open vs closed is (maybe) not about cost but about accounting practices. We were allowed to swap closed items for closed items or open items for open items, but not one for the other, when people asked to swap something out. It was because a closed item like a packaged salad or cheesecake, when scanned through the register, triggered a -1 to the stocktaking software, and when enough items had been sold, they were automatically re-ordered. Obviously if they were given out without being scanned, this caused us to run out before the reorder occurred. Also it was easier for the manager to track thefts based on closed items, e.g. according to the till, 200 salads have been sold, but we actually have 250 missing. Open items weren't so easy to track, so the general policy was that staff on shift could take open items (fries, soft drinks, coffee) for their breaks, but not closed or more easily countable ones (salads, mashed potato, chicken or burgers).
posted by lollusc at 6:21 PM on March 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

I work at a national coffee chain of which you may have walked past twenty-one locations today if you were in a nice part of your city's downtown. People I comp:

--police, sometimes (I'm not down with the fetishization of policing but our local officers are mostly nice and engaged with the community)
--company employees from other random locations (i.e., going beyond the company discount that's all we're supposed to get) and of course any of my own co-workers, regardless of if they're working or not (technically just as much disallowed)
--regulars WHO ARE VERY NICE and still ONLY SOMETIMES. people become spoiled and entitled easily so you have to be very careful with this. almost all of our customers are some form of "regular", so if I comped them all the time I would be giving out drinks all day. some regulars are miserable people and I shed no tears draining their wallets day in and day out. but yeah, if you are consistently lovely I am usually pretty quick to find Reasons to get you a free drink. this does not have to mean tipping but I do notice that you tip a lot I will be very predisposed to comping you from time to time.
--whiny/angry/obnoxious people who I think will leave me alone if I give them something for free (but again, NOT if you're a regular...if you are obnoxious and come to our store every day, I want to do whatever it is that will make you not come back)
--nice people who were the recipient of some minor injustice (i.e. your drink took forever for some reason that was not your own fault [choosing to wait in a forty-person line counts as "your fault"])
--friends and family

We waste as much drinkage every day as some lower-volume shops probably make. I have no general compunction whatsoever about giving someone a free drink and will do so as much as I can get away with. As above, my primary concern in this matter is avoiding spoiling people and getting them accustomed to a nice once-in-a-while favor.
posted by threeants at 10:56 PM on March 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Also this is almost completely dependent on who's around. If my store manager is right there, I won't comp anyone unless it's a fix-the-customer-service-escalation situation, which the company looks favorably upon. If a supervisor is there, I act differently depending on who it is and how by-the-books he or she is. If it's weird off-hours and I'm the only one serving customers, it's anything goes.
posted by threeants at 10:58 PM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, finally, all my freebies are over-the-table in the sense that I really do ring the item up and officially comp it using a button that is supposed to be for customer service situations. If too much inventory starts disappearing that hasn't been accounted for through ringing, it looks like staff are stealing. So, because it is in my interest not to trigger attention from anyone higher up in terms of how I use the button, I only comp the drinks that are cheapest for the company-- drip coffee, straight espresso, iced/hot tea, etc. I almost never give someone a free latte drink and never ever food.
posted by threeants at 11:03 PM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Journalists/columnists who do interviews with restaurant owners frequently are offered free food and drinks.
posted by girlmightlive at 6:08 AM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you are a regular at your local neighbourhood pub you'll notice that occasionally one of your drinks never makes it to your tab. I usually add the cost of the comped drink to the tip, so the benefit falls back to the overworked bartender who probably need that $5 more than I do.
posted by COD at 7:20 AM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Journalists/columnists who do interviews with restaurant owners frequently are offered free food and drinks.

Certain food critics (two in this city, I guarantee everyone from Toronto has read a review by at least one of them) will also expect comped meals, and will rarely be subtle about it. Unfortunately you have to play their game because they have your future in their hands.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:20 AM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

This pleasant regular gets charged for a small (when requesting a large) at my local big-chain coffee shops.

A long time ago, in a seaside non-chain burger joint in North Carolina I was instructed by the ancient owner to give the 'flatfeet' anything they wanted, for free. I think he meant the police, but I never had the opportunity to follow through.
posted by Rash at 9:59 AM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Depending on the area, military in uniform can expect at minimum a discount and often a completely comped meal. This is along the lines of police in uniform, but with a slightly different flavor (generally more positive, since police work in your community and can cause you issues but military work far enough away that people tend to be abstractly positive).
posted by librarylis at 11:08 AM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

If it matters, I have a friend who is law enforcement and his personal policy is to always offer to pay. He pulls out a credit card or paper money and tries to hand it over. Only if they decisively refuse does he accept the comp.

Thanks for all of these answers. I appreciate the perspectives and anecdotes.
posted by 99percentfake at 5:02 PM on March 11, 2014

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