Diners who have been duped, hoodwinked and cajoled by servers whose main goal seems merely to jack up checks recoil at the prospect of seemingly innocent questions that urge them toward more costly options. Yet handled with a guest-first orientation, the art of upselling can greatly enhance restaurant experiences and encourage loyalty.
Practiced with mercenary intent to make more money, upselling can be more than just a little off-putting, with hapless guests cadged into ordering an extra course, a more expensive special or a bottle of bank-breaking wine. Some restaurants recoil at the very word and deny that upselling is ever practiced by their staff. Other operators view it differently though, putting the technique in a positive light and insisting that handled well, it can pave the way for superlative dining experiences.
Brenna Beato, operations director of Community Steakhouse in Chicago, thinks of it more as suggestive or consultative selling. Whatever the term, the aim is for servers to lead guests to the exact point at which they want to be. “Upselling can sound a little harsh and not really in the best interest of diners,” she admits. “But when servers have a sense of the table and what they’re looking for in terms of an experience, they are in a position to make suggestions and offer the best guidance. It’s a fine line. When it’s done without pressure or some other agenda, guests appreciate it.”
Community is far removed from Chicago’s bustling downtown area, where you can’t throw a five-dollar bill without it landing on a steakhouse full of big spenders. Instead they draw heavily from surrounding neighborhoods. Beato says that allows them to carefully build and nurture relationships. “We have a strong base of regular guests and everything we do is based on establishing and keeping trust with them,” she says. “When our servers make suggestions, it is to help them or to educate them about a preparation, a flavor profile. It’s never about increasing the check or upselling just for the sake of it. People recognize and appreciate that.”
It might mean suggesting that a table start off by sharing a signature offering such as the house charcuterie plate or a seafood tower, both of which the restaurant has gotten lots of positive press. “Servers get a sense of the table and suggest these as part of a conversation, not in a preachy way. When it’s the right choice for the table, it will add to the fun,” she says, adding that margins on those particular items aren’t that strong. “It really is done for the guests. A big part of our culture is for servers to be completely on board with the idea of hospitality. That means they are devoted to ensuring all of customers have positive experiences from start to finish.”
Built into the truest notion of service is an innate ability to read a table, sensing signals, both spoken and unspoken, that convey all kinds of information about guest expectations. “When servers understand that dynamic, it becomes much easier for them to be effective,” Beato says.
For Blue Bridge Hospitality Group, a multi-concept operator based in San Diego, the overarching goal is to offer what they call “enlightened hospitality,” a seamless, guest-centric experience. Greg Majors, Blue Bridge’s beverage director, says that often means gently guiding diners through the ordering process.
“We want to elevate the experience for our guests rather than upsell them. Say for instance someone orders a glass of house chardonnay. The server might sense that they can take a step back and ask a few simple questions to find out what kind of characteristics the guest likes in wine: light, medium or full-bodied, fruit forward or not, oak or no oak. Then the server can make another suggestion and give the guest something they never expected,” he says, adding if the questions were on point, there’s a high probability that the choice will be happily embraced. Flip side, “If someone orders a specific glass of wine, there isn’t a reason for the server to question the choice or offer input.”
Whether or not the check average increases isn’t really the point, Majors says. It’s about giving the guest exactly what they want. “Our efforts shouldn’t be offensive or invasive. It’s more like a gut feeling, a read of the guests and where they want their dining experience to go. It might drive a more lucrative sale but if the guest understands why it was done, they generally feel that the cost justifies itself.”
Throughout the Blue Bridge organization, which includes such concepts as Stake Chophouse & Bar, Leroy’s Kitchen & Lounge and Lil’ Piggy’s Bar-B-Q, they encourage staff members to put themselves in the shoes of their guests and have a sense of empathy for them. “We ask them, ‘how would you like a server to guide you,’” says Majors. “It all comes down to how well they deal with people. You don’t want servers who are robotic and follow the same script every time. Everything is intertwined. We want them to establish trust with their diners and then guide them through the ordering of food and beverages so they feel we are there for them [the guests], not that they’re here for us.”
Upselling success, say Community’s Beato, is easy to measure. “The ultimate win for us as operators is that whatever guests spend, they feel it was money well spent. When that happens, we can count on their repeat business.”
Majors agrees. “Carefully handled, upselling increases satisfaction and is a positive reflection on the restaurant. And while it’s secondary to extending enlightened hospitality to guests, it leads to repeat business and a better bottom line.”
Some do’s and don’ts for putting the art of upselling into practice.
- Skilled servers are attuned to the nuances of guests and use information gleaned to tailor serving styles. If a group is attentive to the server and shows curiosity by asking questions about the menu, it can be taken as a cue that they are keen on a dining experiences rather than a purely functional meal.
- Solid knowledge of products is essential to effective selling. When a server suggests an item, they should know exactly why they have put it out there as an option.
- Sell specifics instead of general categories. “Would you care to try our house-made peach ice cream?” is more likely to end in success than “Do you want dessert?”
- Don’t automatically default to the most expensive menu items. If a guest is interested in an upgraded experience, it often is most effective to guide to the high point by degrees. Says Community’s Beato, “Selling the most expensive item can leave a bad taste.”
- Cocktails offer a platform for moving from the well to top shelf. To the guest who says, “I’ll have a gin and tonic,” follow up by suggesting a premium brand gin, noting the flavor profile it will bring to the experience. “Gin XX is made locally with a blend of botanicals that go well with the tonic’s flavor. On the other hand, if they say right up front that the well pour is fine, the conversation should stop right there.
- If a guest orders something specifically, say a margarita in which the brand of tequila is specified, that is usually a good indication that no further options need be presented. If the guest is at the bar and strikes up conversation with the bartender, it may be okay for the second round to gently suggest a like-minded alternate with similar characteristics and a slightly higher price point.
- The right terminology is important in the sell. Rather than asking if guests want tap or bottled water, present it as still, sparking or iced water.
- Never talk down less costly menu items.
- Don’t ask diners if they would like soup or salad with their entrees in a way that makes it seem as though such options are included in the price.
- Never blindside a guest on the price of suggested items. Blue Bridge’s Greg Majors says that instead of reciting them aloud, it is more seamless to gently point to the item and then the price on a printed menu card.
- Once entrees are cleared, and barring signals from the table that they are ready to pack up and exit, there are at least two more potential sells—coffee and dessert—and possibly another glass of wine or an after-dinner drink. Beato says that a good read of the table should be the guide. “Especially at the end of a meal, servers should have strong instincts about guest needs.”