There’s No Such Thing as a Free Appetizer (Ep. 171)
This week’s episode of Freakonomics Radio is called “There’s No Such Thing As A Free Appetizer.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)
It was inspired by an e-mail from a listener named Larry Tingen, a college math instructor:
My fiancee and I are avid listeners and lovers of Freakonomics. We were at a Mexican restaurant this weekend and the first thing that happens is we are given chips and salsa — even before drink orders. Kelli asked me why I thought so many restaurants serve you free food (e.g. chips and salsa, bread, etc.) prior to taking your order? I couldn’t come up with a good reason. To me, it seems to go against the restaurant’s financial interest because most people will “fill up” on the free food, then order a smaller/cheaper meal. … Does the free food make customers more likely to order meals that have a better profit margin? What’s going on here?
Good question, Larry! We spend this podcast trying to answer it. Are we successful? Hard to say. We discuss a number of theories, but perhaps the most persuasive answer is — well, we’ll get to that in a little while.
Helping us sort out the question are:
- Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab; former executive director of the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion; and the author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (as well as the forthcoming Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life).
- Michael Lynn, a professor of consumer behavior and marketing — also at Cornell — who previously appeared in our “Should Tipping Be Banned?” episode.
- Nancy Silverton, an award-winning chef and restaurateur.
- Andrew Haley, a historian at the University of Southern Mississippi and author of Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class, 1880-1920.
- And a variety of restaurant employers and customers from all over the country who weigh in on why so many restaurants dish out free food when they are in the business of selling food.
Among the theories we entertain:
- Free food at the start of the meal may actually encourage people to eat more, by priming the pump.
- Free food (especially bread and chips) encourages diners to order more drinks, which have a high profit margin.
- Free food gives servers and the kitchen time to deliver the meal without the customer getting cranky (or, as one person calls it, “hangry”: i.e., “hungry” + “angry”).
- Free food might make diners less likely to order dessert, which may be in the restaurant’s best interest if they are trying to turn tables quickly. (This point, we should note, is disputed by those who feel that turning tables is overrated, and that dessert can be perfectly profitable.)
- Free food might make diners feel warm and fuzzy toward the restaurant, and think that they should reciprocate by not being cheapskates.
- The “free” food we’re talking about here isn’t really free at all, but rather is baked into the menu prices. In other words, there’s no such thing as a free appetizer.
Finally, Andrew Haley suggests that free appetizers in restaurants may in fact be little more than a historical artifact:
HALEY: Before there were restaurants, there were taverns. Taverns served a set dinner at a set time for a set price. And the accounts we have of these tavern meals suggest that bread … was part of the meal. And this made sense after all. When you went to one of these taverns, you were paying for the meal with a single charge. And it was in the interest of the tavern owner that you filled yourself up with bread so that you would eat less of the expensive fishes and meats.
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