Can I charge customers for substitutions to their breakfast order?

Advice Guy says rethink your menu to take advantage of substitution demand. | Photo: Shutterstock.


Dear Advice Guy,

We run a breakfast and lunch place. At breakfast in particular, the substitutions and customization get out of control. I’d like to start charging for them, both as a way to boost the check averages if people are going to insist on subbing and as a deterrent. But I don’t want to alienate customers. What do you think?

– Owner


Guests are very particular about their breakfast orders. It’s an odd daypart in that if you heard that someone eats the same breakfast daily, maybe granola or two sunny-side-up eggs, you would think, “OK.” But if I told you about a person who eats the exact same dinner every night, a salmon fillet and asparagus or spaghetti and meatballs, you would think, “Wow, what a rigid weirdo!”

In general, I’m not a big fan of nickel-and-diming guests for every change they request. After all, that’s why they are dining at a restaurant rather than picking up a premade breakfast sandwich from a convenience store. You are right that the individual charges could be a deterrent, but do you really want to deter a behavior like ordering food at a restaurant?

My advice would be to reframe this problem to meet your guests where they are: they want to add things and customize, so allow your menu and pricing to allow that to happen.

I’ll use an example that might illustrate. Let’s say you had a pizza place. Instead of saying that a plain pizza is $10 and every topping will add an additional $3 fee, my guess is that most people would go plain or one topping and some would go beyond that to add more. In contrast, if your menu read: $10 plain pizza, $12.95, choose any topping, $15.95, choose any two toppings, or $18.95 choose three toppings, it makes it sound like you are giving them more choices and value: “For this price, here are the options I’ll give you,” rather than, “You can have more if you want it but I’ll charge you for it.” It may sound like a subtle distinction but it’s an important one: you’d be selling more toppings with the same pricing and no additional work.

So for breakfast, rather than putting in a plan to penalize guests by charging them if they want a fruit cup rather than home fries or jalapenos on their eggs, why not charge a bit more for a premium-sounding option that lets them choose from a variety of side dishes, toppings or additions? Use the pizza model. The higher price comes with more options but of course, we still offer “plain.”

When people place their coffee order that might cost more than their breakfast items, they are not being told, “OK, I can add another pump of chocolate syrup or an espresso shot, but I’m going to have to charge you for it…” It’s all part of the experience of profiting from providing guests what they want in a way that makes them feel good about the exchange.

More on managing substitutions here.

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