Why I Hate Upselling in Restaurants, and the Emergence of Narrative Upselling

Categories: My Rant, Sietsema

I'm in an expensive new restaurant in a picturesque part of town, yet I can't help but cringe when I open the wine list and find virtually no bottles under $50, but dozens upon dozens between $50 and $150. In a cunning reversal of the usual wine enthusiast's expectations, you don't get a break by ordering Spanish, South African, or Argentine wines, either. Those bottles are often even more expensive than the French, Italian, and California ones.

Our waiter isn't only a waiter, apparently, but a budding wine steward, and he bounces up raving about the California wines on the list. Soon out pops an account of how he picked grapes in California two summers previously. Something makes me uncomfortable about this, and I'm thinking, "Why don't you just take our order instead of treating us to a long-winded story?"

Five minutes later, I hear him at an adjacent table reciting the same story.

Well, my party and I enjoyed some fine raw-fish stylings at this place, washed down with an indifferent pinot grigio that I'd plucked from the bottom of the list for a mere $55. The only appearance the waiter made during the meal was to pour the wine as rapidly as possible into our glasses the minute the level sunk even a centimeter. (Runners had been dispatched to actually serve the food, and incredibly helpful busboys not only cleared the table, but got more water, cleaned up a spill, replenished the bread basket -- magnificently accomplishing many of the mundane tasks that should have been the waiter's.)

Well, on one wine-pouring visit, as the bottle was almost empty, he looked at us thoughtfully, his head cocked to one side, and observed, "Almost out. Now you need a red. Do you want to try a bottle of wine that I actually picked the grapes for in 2009?" Clearly, he hoped that, on impulse, we'd step right into his little wine-making story without bothering to take a look at the list. But an odd apprehension occurred to me, so I called for the wine list anyway, to which he reacted in crestfallen and insolent silence. When he returned with the list a few minutes later, I asked him to point to the bottle. Sure enough, the grapes he'd supposedly picked were for the most expensive California wine on the list, at $150.

My friends, this is upselling at its most audacious, entangling you in a cockamamie narrative, then creating a situation in which you might, feeling expansive and happy, accede to his suggestion without looking into the price.

How many suckers did this fellow manage to ensnare? I have no idea, but you can only imagine the look on a diner's face as she reaches for the bill, and discovers the $150 charge. And the waiter just stands there, arms folded over his chest and a look of smug satisfaction on his face.

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