The Sharing Surcharge

Jul 09 2014

Guest Satisfaction Restaurant Management

Like a bad call at a baseball game, there’s nothing that’s as polarizing as a split-item fee. And nothing seems to delineate the difference between restaurant folks and their guests than the idea of a sharing surcharge on a single plate of food.

For those in the food business, the logic goes like this:

More often than not, splitting a plate involves adding more food because the small portions don’t “look right.” (A portion of Caesar salad might be four pieces of lettuce; two pieces on a plate doesn’t look good.)

It’s more than just the food. Dining includes a complete experience, and the menu item is merely the itemized piece of the overall transaction. (Rent, utilities, insurance, and other operational costs are fixed regardless if a table shares food or not.)

For guests, a sharing surcharge may seem like the manager or chef is out to get them:

Why should I pay extra? It’s not like we’re asking for more food.

So I should pay more because I eat less?

You’re kidding me, right? Like it costs $3 for them to split this.

These attitudes highlight the disparity between being a restaurant customer and running a food-based business. At the end of the day, the business needs to make a profit, but is charging a fee – and potentially angering customers – worth it?

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Approaching the sharing surcharge issue

If you want to turn a negative into a positive, train your servers to offer to bring extra plates for sharing. Imagine them asking, “Would it be alright if I brought 2 additional plates for you to share the steak tartar?” More often than not, what a guest means is that they plan to share the food. Therefore the issue of splitting a menu item can be eliminated by training the servers that work for you.

If communicated properly, you’ve added a service to your guests. Be sure to have appropriate silverware at the table for serving, prior to the item arriving. Not only will the guest be appreciative of the extra care but the kitchen staff will appreciate being able to remain at their best.

If you believe sharing or split plates are costing you money, you might spend a few minutes to validate that belief. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How many of my menu items are being split? Search your POS for the split modifier and see how frequently it’s being used. If it’s not happening often, it may not be worth the antagonizing your guest for an additional two or three dollars.
  • Then, what kind of items are being split? If they are desserts or appetizers, chances are your guests weren’t going to buy individual portions; these items are very commonly shared. Discourage sharing by adding a surcharge and you could negatively impact dessert and appetizer sales.
  • Are lots of entrees being split? This is where your profits could be eaten away (literally), and where you might think about a sharing charge. (By the way, Ctuit’s restaurant management software suite can help you with these three questions.)
  • How can I introduce a split-item fee without angering my customers? Try to give them a sense of added value for the charge, that it’s not just being their waiter being punitive because the customers have chosen to order one dish between them. If you are increasing the portion size, let them know up front.
  • Consider the setting. If you’re running a family restaurant, people may not mind sharing plates. (Restaurant people, in particular, usually don’t mind swapping plates during a meal.) But if you’re upscale or catering to a business crowd, eating off of shared plates can be awkward at best and taboo at worst.
At the end of the day, it’s your call. Alienating customers for the sake of a sharing surcharge of couple extra dollars may not be worth it. But let’s talk about it. If you’re a manager, owner, worker, or guest, feel free to weigh in on sharing surcharges with a comment and let us know what you think!
Rob D'Ambrosia

Rob D'Ambrosia

After recognizing that restaurant operators needed to leverage technology to serve their Business Intelligence requirements, Rob founded Ctuit Software in January 2000. From casual to fine dining concepts, Rob has experienced the full spectrum of front and back of house positions. He has installed POS systems and consulted for small and medium restaurant chains. Rob’s technology background is equally extensive having worked hands-on with computer systems and authoring both hospitality and IP telephony business applications.