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Split the difference

Recently, in a pricey bistro in Greenwich, CT, the server brought a roasted half chicken with potatoes and spinach for two mink-clad patrons. As he plopped the plate in the middle of the table he asked, "Do you want an extra plate with that? I was astonished. I don't know about you, but I don't know many people who like to pick apart a chicken in the middle of a restaurant... much less eat off the same plate!

Regardless of the motivation—be it fiscal or caloric—more and more diners are asking to share meals. How you handle this request can go a long way toward creating loyal customers and word-of-mouth ambassadors.

A request for a shared meal shouldn't be a hassle for you or your guest. For the guest, the issue is less about handling food without proper utensils and avoiding dry cleaning bills, than it is about attitude. Good service is supposed to make a guest feel comfortable, pampered and special.

My friend's favorite restaurant has a policy to plate each shared entree in the kitchen and give full portions of the side dishes. Each guest is served properly... and without an additional charge I might add. She selects this restaurant over the competition 9 times out of 10 because of this kind of service.

Good service shouldn't be a surprise, but in many cases, like the example above, it is. In addition to WOWing a guest, good service is also a great tip booster! The server can take credit by saying, "I asked the chef to split this for you."

If you're going to charge a modest fee for shared entrées--and I think this is perfectly acceptable--my preferred method is to address the issue on the menu. Be up front with customers about your policy, and state it in a positive way, such as:

"Shared entrees will be split it in the kitchen and served complete with side dishes. $2.50"

If you think the charge may be a turn-off for some price-sensitive customers, you can train your servers to give guests the option. Here's a sample script:

"If you're sharing an entree, we can split it in the kitchen and include side dishes and garnishes for both of you for an additional $2.50."

How can you go wrong? Your customers don't have to "play with their food" and you pick up some extra scoots... which will more than cover the cost of slightly larger portions of side dishes and garnishes.

What if the guest wants to tackle that chicken themselves at the table? That's OK, but be sure to bring an extra plate and necessary utensils without asking. And if there's room on the table, two clean plates with the shared item placed in the middle of the table family-style is even better. Either way, it shows that your operation has style. And you'll never lose when you're willing to split the difference.

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