Why Do Restaurants Serve Free Bread?

Bread is everywhere at restaurants.
Bread is everywhere at restaurants. / SolStock/iStock via Getty Images

It's the hope of any restaurant owner who wants to be successful that their patrons will order plenty of their appetizers, main dishes, and desserts. Yet a large number of restaurants will place a basket of warm and butter-adjacent bread on tables as an unsolicited gratuity.

It seems counterintuitive. So why do restaurants do it?

There are a few theories. The most convincing one relates to tradition. When restaurants and taverns served just one meal with an expensive protein, allowing customers to fill up on bread meant they’d be eating less of the costlier main course. When menus started offering more variety, people still expected to be served bread.

That tradition continues today. At The Cheesecake Factory, tables are constantly replenished with their “brown bread,” a sweet concoction that grew so popular it was eventually packaged and sold in stores.

Others speculate that restaurateurs want to keep consumers from becoming hangry, a slang term for hunger-related irritability, while waiting for their order to arrive.

A more plausible culinary explanation is that serving bread is an opportunity for an eatery to combine hospitality with freshly baked bread to act as an introduction. “I’ve always liked to put bread and water out right away, and I think it’s an opportunity to make a really good first impression,” Portland-based chef Chris Israel told Star Chefs back in 2011. Israel added that the cost is amortized through repurposing leftover bread in the form of croutons.

Restaurants probably aren’t too concerned with customers filling up on bread. You’ll notice that most bread baskets are of the white and unrefined variety. White flour is a simple carbohydrate that may actually increase hunger.

In recent years, some restaurants have walked back the practice, fearing both food waste and an unnecessary expense for bread that goes uneaten. (Other eateries may simply bake the cost of the bread into menu prices.)

It’s unlikely, however, that any of the uneaten bread served at a table is recycled for other tables. While some disreputable restaurant owners may be tempted to do that, it would be a violation of local health department policies. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also prohibits the reserving of uneaten and unpackaged foods owing to possible contamination issues. In a world more conscious of viral transmission, the idea of repurposed bread is probably not going to be considered.

Some places opt for saltier snacks like chips, a trick bars have used for years in order to get people to order more drinks.

In the end, restaurants just want to be hospitable. With some Cheesecake Factory menu items in excess of 1000 calories each, a slice or two of bread isn’t really going to make much difference.

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