There’s No Such Thing as a Free Appetizer (Ep. 171)

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(Photo: Alexander Baxevanis)

(Photo: Alexander Baxevanis)

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:

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.

One last note: there’s no such thing as a free podcast either. We are, after all, a public-radio project — which means  we are supported by your contributions. So please visit our donation page and help us keep doing what we do. Depending on the size of your donation, you can take home a signed copy of Think Like a Freak or Freakonomics; a Freakonomics Radio t-shirt or mug; AND — this is new — you’ll automatically be entered to win a 13″ Macbook Air, donated by our friends at Tekserve in New York.

Howard Brazee

If I ran a restaurant, I would rather have a real good bread chef than a real good desert chef. The reason is - I think lots of people decide how much they like a restaurant early (subject to change). The earlier you make that choice, the better.

That said, I am a big believer that lots of our practices are a matter of "that's what people do", and "it must work". Apparently lots of advertising is done this way.

Dave J.

Dining is a social experience and having a communal dish to share is a good way to start things off. Especially as menus are otherwise for individual choices.

Judge Mental

I think a lot of your hypothesis were spot-on (drink profit margin, appeasing hangry customers), as well as originally it may have been a way to differentiate a restaurant from its competitors. Now almost the converse is true. I am so used to chips and salsa being available at a Mexican restaurant, when I find one that does *not* have complimentary chips and salsa, I pretty much cross them off my list. Bread, at least for me, is different because it is merely a stave-off hunger item, while I *love* chips and salsa. I have encountered a few Mexican restaurants that *did* charge for them, but they weren't "bottomless". How long they lasted when split among four people was really frustrating, based on the normal experience.

I've never seen someone consume the freebies and leave, but I certainly know people that will make the freebies the meal and take the un-touched entree home in a doggie bag for the next day.

There *is* something about getting something for free that touches most people's psyche. People will fight over a T-shirt shot from a cannon at a sporting event and would not pay a nickel for that same shirt if it were offered in the gift shop.



I think this is the correct explanation.

It's quite an experience to feel food sliding down your throat that someone just put out for you for free. I suspect this is a big "event" in the brain, causing you to carefully remember the surrounding details and associate warm fuzzy feelings with them. Indeed, I can't remember all the restaurants I've eaten at, but I can remember--visually, at least--which ones served free appetizers.

Consider the evolutionary basis for this: an early hominin walks into a clearing in the bushes, finds a fruit tree that due to its peculiar location has been mostly untouched by other animals, and so our early hominin gets a "free lunch." You can bet he's going to remember exactly where that fruit tree was!

Restaurant owners probably aren't considering all this, but they do know some conventional wisdom that says "Feed your guests some bread or nachos for free and as long as the rest of the experience isn't horrible they'll always consider your restaurant favorably when deciding where to eat."


Andrew Eames

Hi Guys

Love the books, love the podcast. And another awesome episode.

Just something to bare in mind - when asking for donations, perhaps give some thought to your subscribers outside of the US. I can't tell you how many WNYC emails I receive after donating/pledging telling me about events in the US.
Just a though - Perhaps have tech support create some location specific emails.
And perhaps some international prizes because its now a connected world we live in, in 2014.

Keep up the awesome!


The gluten free trend was the best thing to ever happen for free bread-providing restaurants concerned about the bottom line.

Aaron Matson

I own a Gastropub and for brunch we give out coffee cake. It's for one simple reason. Brunch can get busy....very busy. It buys the kitchen 5-10 min on ticket times.


I believe the "Free" Appetizer are utilized as a way to stuff the patrons stomachs so the restaurant can shrink the portion size of the main dishes without any noticeable effect on the patrons.


Your explanations were mostly within restaurant. The competitive advantage was underplayed in the podcast.
Here is why it is so compelling: Free appetizers are overwhelmingly simple carbs. They hit quickly and give an instant sense of satisfaction.
Where would your emotional self choose to dine?
1) A place that requires patience before you get a slowly-digested salad or
2) a place that offers an quick hit of simple carbs?
I suspect that the expectation of a quick carb hit drives restaurant choice for many people!


I found the study on the value of free things interesting, but did they account for the cost of getting out change for the purchase? It may seem trivial, but there's a certain time cost on paying for the 14 cent chocolate. The sum of the 14 cent cost and the time cost may exceed the marginal utility of buying the chocolate, when including the opportunity cost of the free kiss.


Some restaurants I know bring out small bowl of some special spread with the bread. They sell this spread as well in take home containers. So the bread in those cases is being used as a way to sell take home products.


Hi Guys,
Really enjoyed the episode. Just some food for thought. In Oz the only place I remember getting free bread was at a chain Italian restaurant. As a result free bread usually makes me think less overall about the restaurant. Either they are cheap and nasty or generally generic and boring. Either way it does not reflect well on the restaurant. Honestly when traveling in North America it made me kind of sad, even more so then the fixation on tipping, good or bad.


So, they met in February and they're already married by June!?!? Maybe they should listen to a few of the older podcasts about making important decision in haste. Or the one that talks about how people do things they know are stupid because they think the statistically high odds of a negative outcome only happens to other people, it won't happen to me.

Im guessing that "The Upside of Quitting" will become a very relevant podcast in this couple's not to distant future. :(

Best of luck to them, but couples that are married only 4 months after meeting, have got to have something like, a 95% divorce rate.

George Reimonn

You focused on menu choices once the customer entered the restaurant. The more important question is why the customer decided to eat out, and why this restaurant. Once the customer walks into the restaurant, most of the sale has already happened.

It would be useful to look at the impact of free appetizers on repeat business.


I recently traveled through Turkey, and it's funny how some of these rules differ from country to country. There it seemed that meal portions were somewhat smaller than classic western portions, but every meal came with a HEAP of bread as to keep you full.

I think this is a bit of a twist on the medieval use, that many people want to leave a restaurant full and satisfied. So if your portions are not larger than life, bread is a great, cost effective giveaway.... kind of like the bottomless cup of water at All you can Eat buffets, bringing new definition to "Wetting your appetite"!


The appetizer podcast was somewhat interesting, but somewhat disappointing. The grand conclusion: that the free food was figured into the cost of other food was "duh." However, the idea that the especially salty appetizers and snacks didn't increase the bar bill was wrongly diverted by your expert. It doesn't matter whether the snacks caused upgrade in drinks ordered; surely it causes patrons to order more drinks. Of course this doesn't help with beverages that have free refills, but I would be surprised if the increased bar sales didn't more than offset the cost of chips or pretzels. Since this cost is included in the other operating costs, it has a return in two ways.


This was interesting and reminded me of the pub rules. The reason why singing is encouraged in English/Irish pubs is because your mouth gets dry and you get thirsty, so it promotes more beers, just like salty chips at Mexican restaurants makes you want more margaritas.

Andy Valenti

I just listened to the No Free Appetizer podcast and was a little disappointed you didn't include any references to Lagniappe.
I think the concept is more prevalent in New Orleans, but it’s like a baker’s dozen; a little something extra to show appreciation for your patronage. In its purest form it’s an arbitrary practice and could actually have negative consequence if a customer felt slighted by what they receive or if they don’t receive anything, knowing someone else got something. Unlike an free appetizer, the transaction has already taken place, so there’s no real way to pad it into a price; because it’s arbitrary there’s no way to anticipate it but I still see it (outside of New Orleans, since I've lived in FL since I was 9) in different situations.
Is this a real, sincere freebie, or just another makes-people-feel-good-but-really-better-for-business practice?


While in Mexico City I visited a cantina called La Mascota where there was no charge for any of the food. All you did was pay for a drink. For each drink you bought you could select an item from their menu. The dishes were small but you could easily fill up with a few drinks. Definitely an interesting pricing scheme.


Funny. No free appetizers in Russia. Sometimes they serve some bread with soup, but it's not a common thing. Of course there are rare counterexamples, but in general you need to pay for your bread or chips.