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When Should You Comp a Meal?

waiters carrying trays

Even the best restaurants make mistakes and not every dish is to every customer’s liking. But when does a mistake, a bad meal, or a bad experience, rise to the level that the customer shouldn’t pay for it?

Although restaurant owners and managers may live in fear that every complaint is an attempt to get out of paying for food, an informal poll of restaurant patrons shows that there are only extreme circumstances that call for most guests to ask for, or expect, a free meal.

Although a few diners insisted that if they didn’t like a meal, they wouldn’t pay for it, most people’s stories of comps involved drinks or entire meals dumped in their laps, waits of over an hour for carry out or sit down orders, foreign objects found in food, and food that was clearly uncooked or overcooked.

Teddy Diggs, executive chef at Il Palio in North Carolina, urges against comping, “Comping devalues the quality of the food and the restaurant in the guest’s mind, almost ensuring there will be no repeat business.” Instead, Diggs urges chefs and waiters at high end restaurants to talk to customers about what they do and don’t like about a dish, and create something new for them, charging the guest for the new dish but not the one they didn’t like.

This tactic obviously won’t work as well at fast casual establishments or family restaurants where speed is more important.

As in most situations with unhappy customers, the most important thing is to make sure the customer feels like he or she is being heard. Customers remember and resent the blank stares they receive when they complain about clearly bad service or food. In the long run, comping a meal and offering a gift certificate for future use may be less expensive than having your restaurant be known as the place that didn’t care about giving a bad experience.

Do you have a policy for comping meals? When do you think a meal should be comped?


Marta Segal Block is a social media and content marketing consultant specializing in small-service businesses. You can read more of her work and random thoughts on Advice from Marta and Facebook and follow her on Twitter

Any views, opinions, advice, or endorsements herein are the author(s)’s and are not necessarily the views of Groupon or its partners.

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