Sure, margins are tight in the foodservice game. We all know it. But is it really OK to charge for bread and water? Industry Observer shares his thoughts.
Bread and water. On one hand they’re seen as basic human needs; on the other, a profit opportunity. I remember instructing waiters to get out and flog the herb and garlic bread options to try and get an extra few dollars attached to the tab, but charging for water just never seemed right. However when selling pallets of water to nightclubs became part of my product portfolio and my targets needed to be met, having a customer pay for water seemed like a great idea. Isn’t it funny how your priorities can change depending on circumstance?
Restaurants will always be innovators and they have found any number of great ways to sell bread to the customer, who will in turn feel that they have received a fair exchange in the value stakes – there have been individual cob loaves, terracotta pot bread and any number of herbs and flavourings to raise the humble loaf above the mundane. But if those offerings don’t entice, am I entitled to ask for plain bread and butter? Is it my dining right? Even prisoners get it…
Perhaps I’m just being a dinosaur and wanting something for nothing, but my expectation is that it should be part of the service. I look to excellent examples of how generously it can be done in a place as traditionally French as France Soir, where the brilliant baguette just keeps arriving (until my beloved steps in) or as contemporary as Pei Modern, where, on lauding to the waiter of the quality of the bread, I was told a story of how they have kept the same starter culture for many years and bought it to Melbourne from Sydney. This was indeed a restaurant proud of the house loaf – and I was rewarded for my interest with one wrapped for me to take home. Does this mean that at some stage the cost of the bread has been added to one of the other courses? Naturally, but so it should be.
Perhaps it’s a cultural thing and buried in the traditions of the cuisine; in a French ‘based’ caf, it would be considered a travesty to not offer bread of decent quality, but I don’t expect the same thing from a Yum Cha palace. As usual, it is the middle ground of restaurants (and pubs and clubs) that allow the standards to slip by wanting to charge me for the privilege of bread provision and then not have a clue about the rules of serving it anyway. If you are going to provide bread, please instruct your floor staff about the protocols of how to manage it: side plates are a help and, if you are going to put a side plate out, clear it when you clear main course, not entre. The whole point of a bit of bread is to grab the last remnants of the sauce from the plate and clean the palate, fit for dessert. It goes back to the days when the chef saucier held a place of honour in the kitchen, toiling and refining sauces for hours to get the perfect flavour and consistency.
Do we expect the same from our water dispenser? Should the customer ever be charged for water from a tap, filtered or not? My belief is that if you are providing a basic human need, then it’s a little unseemly to charge, but it happens. Understandably, in places where the tap water is next to undrinkable bottled water is a necessity. However, if you have sought out a special bubbly water, harvested and bottled in a far flung land, fine; charge away (it always amuses me that Evian spelled backwards is ‘nave’ – it’s a marketing bloke’s dream). My observation is that this is actually a changing ground, and for the better, where more businesses, particularly in that ‘middle ground’, are getting on board with just having water available. I always worked on the theory that more water meant less drunks as you could steer a particularly thirsty soul toward a couple of refreshing glasses of ‘adam’s ale’ to fill the liquid need without increasing their alcohol intake. They’ll thank you for it in the morning….
So, the question remains about where you, the establishments, see yourselves on the service spectrum in regard to bread and water. Do you have a foot in each camp and charge for one and not the other, or are you leaning toward the benevolent for both. Clearly I think that they should be offered, not hidden away, and if you are going to provide bread, make it good. The punters will remember you fondly for it. It’s a small price to pay for generosity.