The Hidden Upselling in Restaurants

The other day, my friend and I stopped by a restaurant to grab lunch before heading out to the movies. Aside from having a pretty good lunch, we also got a bit of a show as the waitress (who was quite good) used every trick in the book to try to upsell us, and make our bill (and ultimately her tip) bigger.

She did it so well, that had we gone for them all, our bill would have been twice as large. Not only that, she did it in such a way, that it didn’t seem like she was selling.

  1. Her ‘Recommended’ Dishes
    When welcoming us, she went through the lineup of what’s on special and what she recommends. I like when waitresses do this, as it usually means something off the menu is available, or there’s a daily deal. Where she tried to upsell us, was her ‘favorite’ thing just happened to be the most expensive item by far. (coincidence? I doubt it). Had I got for it, that would be $10 more than I planned to spend right there.
  2. Pesto-Mayo-Whatever Dipping Sauce
    When she asked if I wanted fries with my burger, I said yes. The next words were “would you like our pesto-mayo-whatever dipping sauce with that?” Well, no (I’m a ketchup fan), but thanks for asking. Had I said yes, that would have been an instant $2.50 extra.
  3. Desert
    As she comes to clear our plates, she puts down the desert menu and again points out her favorites… again, her favorites are the most expensive items on the menu. (who eats desert at 1pm on a weekday anyways?)  Desert alone would have been another $5… $10 if we went for her favorite item.
  4. Coffee
    Since it was waaaay to early in the day for desert, we declined. She went into asking if we’d like coffee or another drink. Another $3-5 if we went for it. At that point, we were done with the meal and had a movie to catch, so we just went for the bill.
  5. Credit Card
    I have a credit card with a chip in it, so I have to put in my pin number to purchase anything, along with enter a tip. The terminal she gave me had the quick key set up, to give a 20% tip, or enter different tip amount. Typically, I tip around 15%, so 20% didn’t seem like a far stretch — plus it saved me fumbling with a few more screens to enter a different amount. Having this quick key, instantly earned her another $1.50.

All in all, had we gone for all of her upsells, we would have spent double what we originally intended. Unfortunately for her, we were content with just burgers for lunch with no real extras. But she did end up with her 20% tip — which she earned — and we’ll probably go back next time we’re in the area.

When upsells like these are so flawlessly executed, you have to respect it. I wish the folks who try to sell an Extended Warrantee plan on a a $15 item, would take lessons from our waitress.


TSM is a twenty-something year old guy living in Canada. Follow along as he tries to build wealth through budgeting, investing, paying off student loans, and shopping for a home – all while trying to find his purpose in life.

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  1. The “default tip” option is always really tricky. I was paying by credit card in a cab a while back (I know, credit card enabled cabs!) and I know I always feel weird figuring out what to tip. But in this case, they had the options to pick 20% automatically (I’m pretty sure that was the lowest option available). The actual cost wasn’t very clear, so I couldn’t figure out a tip off the top of my head.
    I was so flustered I just gave up and put the 20% tip. I’m pretty sure he didn’t deserve it, since these days, cabbies don’t seem to know how to get anywhere without you giving them directions.
    Anyway, yep, there definitely are a lot of ways you end up paying extra.
    Oh, and p.s. thanks for dropping by my blog the other day. I hope you keep reading!

    • TSM

      Thanks for the comment. I’m impressed you found a cab that would take a credit card — everywhere I go, they put up such a fight over taking it!

  2. Red

    To answer your question, people like ME order dessert at 1 p.m. Okay, I never order dessert when I eat out because it’s expensive, and I’m usually full. BUT I totally would if I wasn’t full, and it was the same price as a brownie at the corner gas station. 😉

    • TSM

      I had a company lunch once, and the waitress kept asking if we wanted asparagus with what we ordered… so we all said yes (thinking a couple stalks)… Uhh… 5 separate orders, all SIDE orders, all came to the table, at $7 each. The waitress was an idiot…

  3. LC

    Mmm brownie… thanks, Red! 😛

    I absolutely hate when terminals have an automatic tip added to them! But I do love when terminals have three buttons for 10, 15, and 20%, so I don’t have to do the math… is that lazy of me? Oh well.

  4. Sounds like the only thing she missed was creating a custom combo for you. (I was reminded of all the fast food places who ask if you want the combo.)

  5. MD

    The already included tips always make me laugh. Coffee can be surprisingly expensive when you go out.

    Another upsell is wine! Don’t let your date tell them it’s an anniversary. They will convince you to get some fine bottle of wine.

    • TSM

      When I was in LA, I was in the hotel’s restaurant… they asked if I wanted water. Sure, why wouldn’t I? It cost me $3.50…. Good thing work was payin’!

  6. I hate upselling in restaurants, especially when they ask if you want that side condiment!

    At the Keg, they usually ask if I want mushrooms or whatnot added to as a side to my steak and they make it sound like it’s included.

    At Spaghetti factory (I think you’re from Vancouver), one time, my boyfriend and I said no to icecream because we usually avoid the upsell like the plague, and the waitress said “oh but it’s free” in which case my boyfriend and i’s eyes light up and we said “yes please!”

    The 15%- 20% tip option is pretty sneaky. That can add up. especially after the 12% tax paid too :(

  7. Nicely done waitress! She’s a star!
    I hate upselling too, but I just ignore it and try to enjoy the experience.
    I wouldn’t like the 20% tip as default option though, a little presumptuous.
    I’m a ketchup man myself too. :)

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  13. mike

    am i the only one here who considers 20% to be the standard nowadays? i only tip 15% if the service was lower-than-average. most of the friends and coworkers i dine out with agree.

    • TSM

      I usually do 15%… are you an American or Canadian? Up here in Canada, the waitresses are paid a bit more, plus our food tends to be more expensive.

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  15. Edge Gordon

    Great article- it’s a game we play even in our favorite restaurants.
    Spot the Upsell!

    Meanwhile, have a word *ahem* with your spellchecker.. Dessert is something sweet. Desert is something dry.

    Thanks and good luck

  16. Dustin

    My wife an I went out a week or so ago to a local restaurant. We had a good waitress too, who tried to sell us on appetizers, extra drinks when we just asked for water, side salads, soups, etc. We pushed through and ordered what we wanted, and when we were finished with our meal she came up cleared our plates, and she brought dessert menu and told us all about the great desserts. We said declined, and very plainly said that we were full and just asked for the check, she said, “Alright, I’ll come round in a few more minutes with it, and give you time to at least peak at the deserts.” Politely I said that we didn’t need that time, we were just ready to head out. “Alright, I’ll be right back” she said.” Almost 5 minutes later, after trying to flag her down, and her looking really busy (there are about 15 tables in the place, with about 5 of them occupied) – she came with the check and held it close to her chest and said, “Did you at least take a peak at the deserts?” No, I said – we’ve been trying to get your attention, we’re just ready to leave. She finally sighed and told us we were “missing out” and finally relented and gave us the check. I know a lot of people don’t agree with what I did (people always whine when others talk about not tipping or cutting back on them), but I cut down my normal 20% tip to 10% for this final debacle. It was absurd – if a customer tells you plainly that they want something, or don’t – drop it right there. Ask once, and if you get shut down be polite and oblige.

  17. Mantelli

    “Desert?” You routinely eat at restaurants that serve food defined as geographical regions devoid of rainfall, usually sandy or permanently cold?

  18. RWC

    If you can’t afford a 20% tip as the standard, don’t eat out! What cheapo tips 15% in 2011 unless you get really bad service? And I’m talking 20% on the total, stop subtracting the tax and liquor! No wonder servers are so grouchy!

  19. Skeptic

    Maybe it’s just me, but none of these seem like “hidden” upsells.

    It seems to me that these are upsells that are clear as day. It seems like you were keenly aware that all these things cost more.

    You’re an idiot if you needed someone to tell that if you don’t get dessert, tip less, avoid more expensive dishes, and premium extras you save money.

    PROTIP: order less. Save money. Give me blog.

  20. My boyfriend is a server, and we live in the U.S. where the minimum wage for waiters and waitresses is abysmal (in New Jersey, it was $2.13 an hour!) so he insists that we tip a minimum of 20%. The other upsells are things I try to avoid, but I am a staunch supporter of the tip.

    • TSM

      Wow, up here in Canada, our minimum wage (for any job) starts from $8/hour to $10 — MINIMUM. Big difference, probably why Canadian’s tip less

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