Competition is fierce, and eateries work every angle to capture your dining dollars. Here are some angles for you to work. By SmartMoney
1. "It's more about the sizzle than the steak."
Business is good for the restaurant industry. Americans now spend roughly half their food budget dining out, and restaurants expect revenue of more than $537 billion in 2007. That's a 67% increase since 1997.
But it's not just our collective avoidance of the kitchen that's pumping profits: Restaurants work every angle these days, using marketing psychology to get you to spend more.
At legendary Aureole Las Vegas, spandex-clad "wine angels" retrieve bottles from a 42-foot-tall spirits tower. The thinking behind the spectacle: "Anything that gets patrons' attention will get them to spend," says restaurant designer Mark Stech-Novak.
Fast-food outlets use a high-stimulus environment to maximize the source of their profit: "It encourages faster turnover," says Stephani Robson, a senior lecturer at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration. "Specifically, the use of bright light, bright colors, upbeat music and seating that does not encourage lolling."
Even menus are rigged. "We list the item that makes the most profit first so it catches your eye," says restaurant consultant Linda Lipsky, "and bury the highest-cost item in the middle."
2. "Eating here could make you sick."
The 2006 E. coli outbreak that started at a New Jersey Taco Bell and sickened more than 60 people was traced to green onions. But food-borne illness isn't the only cause for concern: In a separate December incident, 373 people in Indianapolis got sick after eating at an Olive Garden where three employees tested positive for the highly contagious norovirus.
"You don't call out (sick) unless you're on your deathbed," says freelance chef Leah Grossman. Indeed, according to a recent study, 58% of salaried New York City restaurant workers reported going to work when sick; the number is even higher for those without benefits.
"A lot of poor, transient people work in restaurants," says Peter Francis, a co-author of industry exposé "How to Burn Down the House." "They're not giving up the $100 they'd make in a shift because they're sick."
How can you protect yourself? Check inspection results, which are often posted online by local departments of public health. Or just visit the restroom; it "tells you everything you need to know about a restaurant," Francis says.
3. "Our markups are ridiculous."
It's no secret that restaurants enjoy huge markups on certain items: Coffee, tea and sodas, for example, typically cost restaurants 15 to 20 cents per serving, and pasta, which costs pennies, can be dressed up with more expensive fare and sold for $25 a dish or more. At a fine-dining restaurant, the average cost of food is 38% to 42% of the menu price, says Kevin Moll, the CEO and president of National Food Service Advisors. In other words, most restaurants are making roughly 60% on anything they serve.
It's not all gravy though. Restaurants keep only 4 cents of every dollar spent by a customer, says Hudson Riehle, the vice president of research and information services at the National Restaurant Association. The remainder of the money, he says, is divided among food and beverage purchases, payroll, occupancy and other overhead costs.
Given the slim profit margin, many restaurants rely on savvy pricing to create the illusion of value. Putting a chicken dish on the menu for $21 will make a $15 pasta dish, where the restaurant is making a big profit, seem like a bargain, says Gregg Rapp, the owner of consulting firm MenuTechnologies.net.
4. "Big Brother is watching you . . . eat."
No one likes having their every move scrutinized, but that may be just what's happening at your favorite restaurant. Cameras are popping up everywhere, from four-star eateries to the place where you grab your lunchtime sandwich.
At historic Randy's Steakhouse in Frisco, Texas, where checks average $45 to $50, co-owner Don Burks has installed 12 cameras around the premises. Of those, two pick up activity in the dining rooms, and two are aimed at the bar.
"We've had customers stand on chairs to try to take out a camera," Burks says. "But the cameras aren't even pointed at them; they're pointed at the wine rack." Their primary purpose: deterring employee theft.
At some restaurants, however, the cameras are indeed trained on the tables. At New York City's four-star Daniel, for example, four closed-circuit cameras monitor the dining rooms, offering a bird's-eye view of every plate.
"It's about maintaining a quality of service," says Daniel spokeswoman Georgette Farkas. "With the cameras, the chef can tell when each course needs to be plated and served." So much for that romantic dinner for two.
5. "There's something fishy about our seafood."
Even when you pay top dollar for a seafood dish, you might not get what you're expecting. About 70% of the time, for example, those Maryland crab cakes on the menu weren't made using crabs from Chesapeake Bay, says James Anderson, the chairman of the Department of Environmental and Natural Resource Economics at the University of Rhode Island. Because of high demand, crabs are often from other Eastern states or imported from Thailand and Vietnam. (Look closely at the menu: "Maryland-style" crab is the giveaway.)
There's also the problem of outright substitution -- inexpensive fish, such as pollack, getting passed off as something pricier, like cod. How widespread is the problem? In 2006 the Daytona Beach (Fla.) News-Journal sent fish samples to a lab to prove that four out of 10 local restaurants were pawning a cheaper fish as grouper. The same lab also checked seafood from 24 U.S. cities and found that, overall, consumers have less than a 50-50 shot at being served the fish they ordered.
What can you do? Ask where the fish comes from. "If they're not sure if the fish is from Alaska or Asia, I order the beef," Anderson says.
Continued: "Reservation? What reservation?"
6. "Reservation? What reservation?"
When Timothy Dillon, 34, showed up at new Chicago trattoria Terragusto for his friend's birthday, he wasn't expecting a wait. He'd made a reservation for four, then called the day of to confirm and add one more. The restaurant told him no problem, but when the party showed up, they were met with a long wait.
"After almost an hour of standing by the bar being ignored, we ended up leaving for another restaurant," Dillon says. Terragusto says it was its first week open: "We were probably working out a lot of glitches," a spokesperson says.
As Dillon discovered, a reservation isn't a guarantee. "Overbooking is almost a necessary evil," says John Fischer, associate professor of table service at the Culinary Institute of America. Restaurants calculate their average no-show percentage for any given night, then overbook the restaurant by that much, hoping it will come out even.
How to avoid Dillon's fate? It's considered poor taste to offer a tip before you're seated, Fischer says, so if it's your first time, inquire politely after 15 minutes. But go ahead and slip the manager or maître d' $10 or $20 on the way out; it should ensure you're seated promptly next time.
7. "Our specials are anything but."
"I'm very careful about ordering my food," says Rick Manson, the owner of Chef Rick's restaurant in Santa Maria, Calif. If he orders oysters, Manson says, he'll offer multiple dishes on the menu that use oysters, "to make sure I use every one of them." Nonetheless, countless variables can leave surplus ingredients at the end of the day -- which often become tomorrow's special.
"It could be the chef legitimately wants to try out something new," says Stephen Zagor, the founder of consulting firm Hospitality & Culinary Resources. "But it could also be something nearing the end of its shelf life that needs to get out of the kitchen."
How can you tell a good special from a bad one? Watch out for "an expensive item used in a way that's minimizing its flavor," Zagor says, such as a lamb chop that's been cut, braised and put into a dish where it's a supporting player.
Pastas, stews and soups containing expensive meats are also suspect. "There's an old saying in the restaurant industry," says David A. Holmes, the vice president and director of Out East Restaurant Consultants. "'Sauce and gravy cover up a lot of mistakes.'"
8. "There's no such thing as too much butter."
Think that salmon fillet you ordered for dinner is good for you? Think again. Restaurants load even their healthiest fare with butter and other calorie-heavy add-ons. Restaurant meals average 1,000 to 1,500 calories, says Milton Stokes, a registered dietitian and spokesman for the American Dietetic Association. That's roughly two-thirds of the daily average calories recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And according to a recent study, women who eat out five times a week consume an average of 290 additional calories per day.
Though most Americans assume that fast food is the worst offender, similar fare at casual sit-down restaurants can be even more caloric. The classic burger at Ruby Tuesday, for example, has a whopping 1,013 calories and 71 grams of fat. The McDonald's Big Mac, with its 540 calories and 29 grams of fat, seems downright diet-worthy by comparison.
"We butter our hamburger buns," says Julie Reid, the vice president of culinary for Ruby Tuesday, "so we tell people if they're looking to cut calories, they shouldn't eat the bun." If that sounds less than appetizing, try splitting an entrée with someone, or order an appetizer instead of a main dish.
9. "Nice tip -- too bad your waiter won't get it."
Just because you tip your waitress 10 bucks, it doesn't mean she's going home with that money. More than likely, she'll have to pass on some of it to the people who helped her serve you: The bartender might get $2, and the busboy $3 to $5. It's called a tip pool, and it's becoming standard practice in many restaurants. "It happens often that if someone leaves a voluntary tip (for their server), a significant portion of that money is going to other people," Zagor says.
According to federal law, only employees who customarily receive tips -- wait staff, hosts, bartenders and bussers -- can participate in the tip pool. But sometimes management takes a cut. In 2006, waitstaff from the Hilltop Steak House in Saugus, Mass., won $2.5 million in damages after complaining that managers dipped into their tips.
Mandatory gratuities are also divvied up. At high-end restaurants such as New York City's Per Se and Napa Valley's French Laundry, both owned by chef Thomas Keller, the practice is called service compris.
"The 20% service charge is clearly stated on the menu, and it's equally divided among the staff," says a spokesperson for both restaurants. Though the tip pool is designed to foster a team environment among staff, for customers it means something else entirely: that your gratuity isn't specifically rewarding the waiter or sommelier who provided you with exemplary service.
10. "Never go out to eat on a Monday."
If you think that Monday, when restaurants tend not to be crowded, is a great time to eat out, think again. "You're being served all of the weekend's leftovers," says Francis, the exposé co-author. Kitchens prepare food on a first-in, first-out basis, meaning whatever is oldest gets served first. It's a way to ensure that everything on the menu is as fresh as possible.
The system works great most days, but it can run into a little glitch over the weekend. Distributors typically take Sunday off and make their last deliveries Saturday morning, which means that by Monday any food not used over the weekend is at least three to four days old. And it will be served before the same ingredients arriving in Monday's delivery.
What to do if you wish to dine out on a Monday? Ignore your instincts and go to a place that's perpetually crowded. "If you are open 24/7 and busy all the time," says New York chef Lucia Calvete, "all your ingredients are fresh all the time."
This article was reported and written by Christine Bockelman for SmartMoney