When Bread Costs Dough

Here’s a depressing downturn trend: restaurants charging customers for bread.

Then again, is that really so bad? As the post on yumsugar suggested, a bread charge might cut down on baked waste. Since health codes require restaurants to toss all remaining bread (and butter!) after it has been served and many folks are off carbs, maybe we need some change.

But, is making people pay really the best way? (I always assumed niceties like fresh bread are built into the price of fine dining.) Another idea–and a more economically appealing one for diners–would be to have servers make the rounds with a bread basket, asking customers if they want a slice/roll/ciabatta.

photo by roboppy via Creative CommonsRestaurants could only serve bread to diners who ask for it, similar to what restaurants around here (N.C.) did with water during the drought. Hopefully whichever policy is used is clearly communicated.

Or they could serve less bread automatically and make it commensurate with the number of diners. Even self-proclaimed “bread freaks” admit that restaurant bread can be too abundant.

This topic begs the question: Does an item’s expense affect your determination not to squander it? I know the ubiquitous basket of tortilla chips that precedes many Mexican meals is rarely more than half-eaten, especially when the chips are cardboard-esque.

Does not paying for food make you more likely to waste it? I would say yes, because you value that item less.

The bread fee reminds me of airlines now charging for meals everything edible. I would guess that there’s less wasted airline food since meals stopped being free. Can any airline industry people verify that?

Putting a price on what was long gratis causes an immediate uproar, but folks get used to it. If restaurants truly used the bread charge to keep overall prices down, I think most folks would support the change. Then again, I can see many establishments observing the sea change and, regardless of need, viewing bread as just another revenue source.

Whatever they do, I just hope restaurants don’t use bread as menu holders.

What can you do?

  • If you know nobody at your table will eat the bread, tell the waiter that before they bring the basket.
  • Ask for less bread.
  • Since it will just be thrown out, take the remaining bread home. Maybe it can become French Toast, right Eco-Chef?
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  1. Molly
    Posted January 8, 2009 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Last time I was at a semi-fancy restaurant, the server just asked if we wanted bread, and when we’d finished the first loaf, asked if we wanted more (we said no). I like the asking method better than the charging method!! I also think just having the regular server for each table handle it will work better than someone walking around with a bread basket because it doesn’t require the hiring of an additional person, important if the restaurant is trying to cut costs!

  2. Posted January 8, 2009 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    I have got to ask, because you’ve linked some pretty amazing stuff in the past to your blog posts–what the hell is yumsugar? I mean, where did you find that gem of consumerism?

    As for the loaves of bread as menu holders, I read your post and noticed the sentiment that food should not be furniture or a play thing; you reminded me of something I heard around Thanksgiving along these lines: http://www.wthr.com/Global/story.asp?S=5718703 pretty outrageous, no?

    Peace and Love,

  3. Seth B.
    Posted January 8, 2009 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Anybody who tells you that restaurant bread is too abundant is not, I repeat not, a bread freak.

    That said, even as a true bread freak I would always be comfortable with the idea of wait staff asking before bringing even the first basket to make sure the table’s interested.

    Here’s my question for the group: While I find that most dining companions are, like me, very willing to take extra food home, there’s still a stigma attached to emptying the bread basket into a bag. Agree/disagree?

  4. Posted January 8, 2009 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    I have noticed an aversion of sorts on the part of some people towards taking home the bread, yet I can’t tell if that’s because of social pressure or individual stupidity.
    Peace and Love,

  5. Dee Dee
    Posted January 8, 2009 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    I much prefer being asked if I would like a piece of bread or a roll – if it’s in a basket, I’ll probably eat too much. We were at a wedding a couple of weeks ago and a server carried a basket around to each table offering bread, but then after everyone was served, or not, she put a refilled basket on the table. The good news is, I’m told, the parents of the bride packed up all the leftover food (and this wedding was over-the-top: caviar bar, sushi bar, suckling pig, slider station, mashed potato bar(!), 20 stations of individually sauteed goodies, a raw bar, cheese and charcuterie stations, etc…and that was just the cocktail hour) and took it to a food pantry. The excess was appalling but at least some of it was redistributed.

  6. bridget
    Posted January 8, 2009 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    when will restaurants realize that loading up the bread baskets costs them at multiple points:

    1. food costs to prepare the bread – let along waste when it’s dumped
    2. opportunity costs for people who fill up on bread then feel too bloated and full to order dessert!

    walk around with a bread basket, offer people a roll, then see how many people will be willing to order an extra course – namely, dessert!

    why buy the dessert when you can get the carbs for free!

  7. Posted January 8, 2009 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    Molly, I’m sure the regular waiter can do the bread, but then you’d miss out on the happy bread boat guy in the picture.

    Seth and Dan, I do think there is a stigma on taking bread home; I know I feel it. And that’s too bad. Let’s fight that!

    Dee Dee, Glad to hear about the wedding donation (that does sound over the top!). Some caterers/venues won’t let you take home the food you paid for. That right is what Sen. Oropeza is fighting to get legislated in Cali.

    Good point, Bridget. Other than all-you-can-eat places, you’d think restaurants would have an incentive to chill a bit on the bread.

  8. Posted January 9, 2009 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    It does seem like a good idea to at least ask before plunking a big basket down.

    Bridget, I find that the free bread makes me far less likely to order an appetizer. Why do that when I can nosh on bread while waiting for my meal?

  9. Rena
    Posted January 9, 2009 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel bad about taking the bread AND butter home with the rest of my overly-large meal. It doesn’t go to waste in our house! yum!

  10. piccola
    Posted January 9, 2009 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    When the bread is good, I’m definitely in the “stash it in my purse for future consumption” group.

    But most of the time, I don’t want to fill up on bread before my meal, and I could easily go without. So please, ask first – especially if you’re going to charge.

  11. Posted January 10, 2009 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    The idea of charging for bread isn’t weird for me at all – we don’t get bread baskets as a matter of course here in Australia. I found that very strange when I was living in the States.

    My American partner, now living here in Australia, occasionally finds it irritating to not get bread, but that’s pretty rare. If she really wants it, she just orders some. It’s actually good because if it doesn’t just arrive before your meal, you need to take the time to decide if you really want/need the bread.

    As a result of the need to order bread, most people don’t have it before their meal. This means you eat more meal and less carbs. It’s better for the restaurant (more money, less waste, diners have more room to order more regular food). It’s better for the diners (less waste, not so full you can’t enjoy your meal, fewer carbs = smaller waistline).

    It’s all a matter of what you’re used to.

  12. Posted January 11, 2009 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    It’s not that uncommon to pay for bread out of the basket in parts of Europe as well. I’d probably eat it less mindlessly if I knew I had to pay– even a nominal charge– for a slice or roll.

  13. Posted January 11, 2009 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    Also, bread in baskets isn’t always thrown out, it’s often used in other bread baskets for subsequent diners. Kitchen Confidential, anyone?

  14. Posted January 14, 2009 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    I think I might be weird about this, but I always bring the leftover bread home. It depresses me to think of such beautiful breads going to waste, so I munch on them later as a snack.

  15. Posted January 14, 2009 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think you’re weird, Allie. And I know Dan, Seth, Piccola and Rena agree.

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