How do you handle people who bring in their own lunch to eat with friends?
– John Noonan, Owner, Clarke’s, Boston, MA
If there’s a phrase to describe our most recent questions, it’s “season of the mooch.” I’ve gotten questions about soda station thieves, guests who come for live music but don’t buy anything, and guests who fill a cup coffee at a quick serve restaurant while filling their purses with sugar and cream packets. These questions, like yours, point to some combination of tough times, ill manners and ignorance on the part of consumers about the implied contract of dining. In tourist areas, some of it may be cultural—but some of it probably isn’t.
We talk a lot about employee training but less about guest training. As these examples indicate, guests can and should be trained to be good guests. The trick is how to do it without alienating them and losing business.
Like many of the problems we’ve discussed in this column, it is one of differing expectations due to poor communication. You expect that every guest at Clarke’s will order food and beverage, a very reasonable assumption for a restaurateur. Some of your guests expect that if their friends are spending money with you, it is acceptable to accompany them with outside food and drink. This gap in expectations creates the problem.
The first solution is to make clear your expectation through appropriate signage, menu notes and host and server training. Since you’re a casual tourist-intensive restaurant, discreet signage like, “Please refrain from bringing outside food and drink into this establishment,” or, “Two item minimum per guest,” may help. So will host and server training to sell even to those who don’t intend to buy anything.
The second solution is to make some difficult management decisions when it comes to how aggressive to be when enforcing the rules. Is one guest on a special diet and not eating while her tablemates are spending good money? Is this a widespread problem costing you lost revenue from a line of people waiting to occupy seats at lunch? Or is this an annoyance in an otherwise empty seat.
Finally, before you institute these changes, look at what people have been bringing in and take a critical look at your menu. For example, are people bringing in healthy options, desserts or specialty beverages and do you have appropriately priced quality offerings to match? A restaurant I know has a no outside food and drink policy but doesn’t serve coffee—frustrating caffeine addicts and making a beautiful dining room tacky with disposable coffee cups from other establishments.