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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10 comments
Katieaniol
Katieaniol

I totally agree with your post despite the fact I am a server myself. I can not be sure what the policy is at the restaurant you visited but at the restaurants I've worked at, chain and privately owned, the servers schedule is often based on their sales. My current employer is so disgustingly greedy and selfconcerned that they track your sales, food and liquor, and your add-on items per person, with a chart in the office. If you are not in a certain percential then you do not get shifts and when you do you will get sent home first. If you continuously end up towards the bottom of the list they will punish you further by giving you "warnings" and then eventually let you go for failure to "make the sale". Its a horrible position to be in as a server and a single mother.

Herbert
Herbert

C'mon Robert, name the names!

some girl
some girl

You must have eaten at Phillippe on East 60th street.  Upselling is the norm and the waiters are smarmy.  The place is awful! 

Kayemtee
Kayemtee

Given the level of customer abuse demonstrated by the grape picking tale, it would have been helpful to name the offending restaurant.

PatG
PatG

Yeesh. I was watching THE FRENCH CONNECTION last night and there was a dingy dawn establishing shot of one of the bridges from the Bklyn side. I could feel the humidity from my ankles to my hair and smell that special NYC smell and missed like Hell the place I called home for 12 years. But this story just makes me want to don an "I HATE NY" t-shirt.

Lewisbee
Lewisbee

the absolute worst are Bastianich and Batali's places, especially Del Posto and Babbo. They constantly trick/push/sneak expensive bottles on us. I asked the sommellier at Del Posto to choose a wine to go with our pasta and he brought us a $750 bottle without mentioning the price!

48volts
48volts

With the story of the server you mentioned aside (that is pretty heinous) - most servers are just doing what they're told to do by the restaurant managers. It gets worse at the corporate-restaurant level - everything boils down to making more money for the people at the top and most of the time, the server is just following orders so that they aren't hounded by their managers who constantly say things like, "Gee Tommy, your dessert sales percentages are a little low tonight. Is there anything you want to talk about?" Or they try to "reward" you with meal credits and set up a competitive rift between you and the other servers, making you feel like you have to prove something, when you're really just there to pay your tuition. And often, the managers too are just trying to make themselves look better for the owners. I'm specifically talking about B.R. Guest-owned restaurants here (Atlantic Grill, Dos Caminos, Blue Water Grill, etc.) and I have obviously worked at one in the past. The false sense of comradery is not only perpetuated among the server and patron, it pretty much dictates the relationship of the server and their superiors. And this is why you end up with servers making the guest uncomfortable; they really don't want to have to offer you dessert because they know you must be stuffed after three courses, but the floor manager is watching them like a hawk. So I definitely understand and empathize with your rant, but keep in mind that its often the fault of restaurant management and their skewed perception of service standards for trying to turn people's pockets inside out.

Rbrggr
Rbrggr

why don"t you name that place so I know where not to go. this sounds like the managers and owners putting a lot of pressure on the waitstaff and coaching them to make the sales. if I'm confronted with that kind of wine salesmanship i just ask for a Corona and safe my money for a friendlier place

Seth Gordon
Seth Gordon

You can't be "tricked" into buying an expensive bottle unless you're, to be frank, a bit slow. It's not that hard to look at or ask the price of something. The only way you can be "pushed" into buying an expensive wine you don't want is if you're afraid the waiter or your dining companions or whoever will think you're a cheapskate or not cool if you don't buy the $750 bottle. In which case, that's on you - not on them. Be a little more strong-willed and don't blame the salesman for your lack of a spine.

I also find it hard to believe that a som would just open a bottle that expensive - a bottle that the diners might very well not have enough money for, in which case Del Posto would be SOL - assuming it'd be okay, unless you'd already ordered wines at that price point, or given them SOME reason to take that chance. Restaurants don't just risk losing expensive wines that way. I suspect there's some kind of prologue to that story that we're not hearing. After all, it would be their loss if you looked at them and said "I can't afford this" and they'd already opened it. If, on the other hand, you suggested to them that price was no object... or to "keep it 3 digits" or something - well, you're going to get a $750 wine. I've asked the som's opinion at a number of B/B restos - Del Posto, Babbo, Esca - and every time I've been either first asked a price range, or the som has engaged me in discussion first - pointing to a particular wine on the menu, discreetly, so I could see the price (usually they'd start with something in the $90 - $120 range), at which point I could nudge him down if I wasn't feeling it or further discuss options in that same neighborhood if I was.

But waving the som away with a "you pick it" could be taken for "I'm not one of those 99-ers, so do whatever." - you take that risk, you pay the price. No sympathy.

Rsietsema
Rsietsema

You are quite right, 48volts, much of the bad behavior seen in servers is the direct result of coercion on the part of the owners. Thanks for pointing that out.

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