Suggestive Selling in Restaurants: Don’t Push It

May 08, 2011

By Joan Lang


Not so long ago we were at one of our favorite local restaurants—or at least, it used to be—sitting at our favorite place to eat: the bar.

Nowadays, with the eating-at-the-bar phenomenon growing like Topsy, being a bartender can be a pretty good gig income-wise. Perhaps it’s the fact that tending bar is more like being onstage than running between tables is, but customers at the bar can be sitting ducks, and this guy was really pushing his luck.

Over the course of our multi-course meal, we watched him upsell the couple next to us to a high-end call vodka in their Cosmopolitans (where you can’t really taste it), sell a second half-dozen oysters to the singleton on my right by telling him the season was almost over, talk a group of four into getting four different wines-by-the-glass pairings instead of an all-purpose bottle, and numerous other suggestive sales. In general, he treated his customers like dumb hicks who didn’t know how to order dinner—in this, a place that probably has a $75-plus per-person average check anyway—and we saw every move.

His boss must have loved him, but we didn’t:  He pushed us to split a salad in addition to our appetizers, and tried to shame my husband into buying a more expensive red (“What if I told you that you could get a much better wine if you spent just 17 more dollars?”); in fact, he didn’t back off until one of us made the universal  “cut it” gesture, slashing hand across the neck.  Now if we glance in and he’s on duty, we spend our money elsewhere.

Still, suggestive selling is one of those time-honored ways to boost the check, and there are ways to do it without irritating customers, especially ones who are experienced enough to know better:

  • Use a blackboard or printed specials menu, a particularly useful tactic with regulars, who may want something a little different. It doesn’t matter if these items carry a higher price point; just don’t forget to list it
  • List a few fun, minimally priced nibbles on the bar menu—you do have a bar menu, right? There’s nothing better than a quick little something (a dish of marinated olives, a deviled egg of the day, some cheese or a savory dip) to enjoy  with your drink while you get it together on the rest of the order
  • Create a few signature dishes that really attract attention going across the dining room, perhaps with a sizzling iron pan or a fantastic aroma released when the server uncovers the top of an individual casserole, or a towering ice cream dessert. Other people will notice, and want one
  • Offer a variety of price points, realizing that customers may want something if it represents enough of a value. That may mean smaller portions on some items or lesser-known wines in addition to the bell-ringers; it’s the essence of hospitality to give patrons a choice
  • Get your servers’ buy-in. They should taste everything on your menu, including specials, so they can make informed and impassioned decisions; as a customer, nothing is worse—well, almost nothing—than being told “everything’s good”
  • On a related note, train and train again, and observe your staff at the point of service. Don’t let them browbeat customers or treat them like they’re only good for a tip

There’s a difference between suggestive sales and being pushy. It may be a fine line, but it’s never been more important.