If you asked me the most annoying thing about restaurants lately, I wouldn’t say noise level, astronomical wine markups, no-reservations policies, or tiny tables with no room for the dishes you’ve just ordered. Nor would I hesitate one second before shouting, “Upselling!”
Upselling occurs when the service staff tries to get you to order more food or wine than you’d intended, sometimes by direct suggestion, sometimes by more devious techniques.
Suffering extreme cases of upselling has been the worst aspect of several recent dining experiences. In fact, it’s been the rare meal where the waiter hasn’t acted disappointed when I didn’t order an appetizer, asked me if I wanted another bottle of wine before the first was near being finished, or pressed the dessert menu on me so preemptively — even after I’d already asked for the check — that I was made to feel bad about not ordering one.
Yes, I’m sure the saltwater taffy pie with raspberry crème anglais and a dollop of licorice gelato is magnificent, but maybe I’ve already eaten so many of the dishes you suggested in a tone of false camaraderie that I’m about to barf.
Upselling upsets the traditional waiter-customer relationship. Usually, if a diner wants assistance with the menu, he’ll ask, and then the waiter can blab on and on about the merits of this dish and that. But I don’t want to listen to a long-winded used-car spiel the minute I sit down. Especially when the dishes are listed right before me on the menu.
How many times have you heard the question, delivered in a wheedling tone, “Have you eaten here before?” Friendly enough sounding, but the minute you make the mistake of answering in the negative (and often also when you answer in the affirmative), out flows a torrent of advice, pre-programmed. “This is a restaurant where the dishes are meant to be shared, so we suggest you order at least two or three per person.” What the waiter doesn’t tell you is that two or three dishes per person is way too much food, and the busboy will be taking half of it away.
After all, you pay most of the waiter’s salary through tips — doesn’t that make you his boss? Yet the upselling waiter acts like your boss, lecturing like a schoolteacher about how you simply must do this and that — with the cynical objective of turning you upside down and shaking the last bills from your pocket.
Here is the most egregious case of upselling I’ve experienced so far. It worries me, because it takes upselling to more horrible heights. I’ve even coined a term for it: Narrative Upselling. Will we be seeing more of it in the future?
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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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 2, 2011