When a $39 steak can turn into a $121 meal without you even realising, it can be slightly scary to be a diner entering a restaurant.
Luckily, this bill bust happened to Australian Culinary Federation national president Peter Wright in a Las Vegas restaurant, not locally.
“I was recently in Las Vegas and bought a $39 steak which ended up costing $121, so I think we’ve got a lot to learn from upselling because I haven’t been to an [Australian] restaurant where anyone’s been able to upsell that,” he says.
Mr Wright was charged for sides, garnish, tax and service, and while that was overseas, Australian restaurants are increasingly feeling the pressure to upsell to remain profitable.
Here are six hospitality tricks to watch out for.
The art of the menu
The menu is the most important tool the restaurant has to get you to spend and, while the costs may be rising, dollar signs have vanished.
“Dollar signs are out, they are definitely out. Dollar signs and truffle oil. Oh, and chefs hats – no one wears those anymore,” Mr Wright says.
American research has shown that by taking away the symbol, diners will spend more money.
Also watch out for menu placement: If your eye, or stomach, is always enticed by the most expensive item, it’s probably not a coincidence. Keep in mind you’ll likely be attracted to the first items under each menu heading.
Order a cut of meat, and nowadays that could be all you’ll get.
“A lot of the restaurants have split sides, or what used to be the garnishes, so if you go to Rockpool you get a piece of steak with a slice of lemon on top,” Mr Wright says.
“Separating the components of the dish and selling them individually is one way of charging more.”
Turning water and wine into profit
Sparkling or still? Charging customers for water is one now unsurprising extra, but fortunately, Mr Wright believes this trick is becoming passé.
“I think people are a bit over the water, it’s like charging for bread rolls,” he says.
“I’d be suggesting that I’ve got some beautiful Italian sparkling water or some Yarra Valley tap water, whatever you’d prefer, and make it a bit light-hearted.
“But I’d be trying to upsell the wines rather than the water – you get more money from that.”
The wine list can be one of the biggest profit sources for a restaurant so if you do have a budget for wine, don’t be afraid to enforce it, and don’t go for the house wine, as it’s not likely to be the best value.
That 10-course degustation from a high-end super chef probably sounds like the meal of a lifetime, but Mr Wright says bundling is also a way for restaurants to get you to spend more.
“You pay one set price, where usually you might have just had a main course and dessert, and instead you are having seven or eight or 10 dishes to get the price per head up.”
This also works with banquets, often enforced by restaurants for larger groups to ensure a minimum spend.
Of course, the kicker for the restaurant is to serve each course with matching wines.
Provenance and profit
Beware the dish that sounds overwhelmingly good – provenance is a big seller.
Remember that a three-year-old aged Tasmanian cheddar with Barossa Valley honey smoked ham on fresh baked bread is still a $13 ham and cheese sandwich.
“If things are local you’ll want to try them more,” Mr Wright says.
People are also more likely to go for items with a long, embellished description as they’ll pay more attention to the food and less to the cost.
Service and ambience
No matter how many tricks they pull, the restaurants you’ll spend the most money in are the ones you where you want to linger.
Mr Wright says if the service is attentive and knowledgeable, the décor is quirky and the music is relaxing, you’ll have a great time, but you might want to put a leash on your wallet. He tells of a recent experience at a Mexican restaurant in Perth.
“We spent money because we wanted to stay there and enjoy ourselves, because all the elements were right – the waiters were funky, the music was right and the pots and plates and decor was quite unique.”