5 Trick Questions Restaurants Use to Make You Spend More


Ryan Ong



Waitstaff are salespeople. You probably don’t think of them that way; but if your financial advisor dealt in omelettes instead of endowment plans, you’d basically be looking at a waiter. They just use a different range of trick questions:


1.Still or Sparkling?

Did you know there’s often a third option called “tap”?

Some restaurants insist you buy bottled water. Other restaurants feel that’s too blatant a ripoff, so they compromise: the restaurant does offer free tap water, but the waitstaff just don’t raise it as an option. You have to ask for it.


2. Would You Like to Look at the Cakes?

Sometimes, the cakes aren’t on the menu because they change daily. But in many restaurants, any cake in the display case is already on the menu. So why make you walk over there?

Because once you’ve made the effort, you’re more likely to buy a slice. And there’s usually no price tag on the cakes at the counter, so you’ll pick one without thinking about cost.

Where I once worked as a waiter, the boss also had another theory: when you get up and walk a bit, your stomach stops feeling like you ate the anchor of a small yacht. That’s when you decide there’s a tiny bit more room for desert.


3. We’re Out of Bottle X. Can I Replace it With…?

Where I worked, we sometimes recommended bottles we knew we didn’t have.

Say we have two bottles of Smashed Liver Valley on the menu, one dated ’98 and another dated ’02. The ’98 is far more expensive than the ’02, and we don’t even stock the ’02 anyway.

If you asked us to recommend a wine, we’d suggest the ’02 anyway. If you agreed, we’d come back 10 minutes later and say “Sorry we’re all out of that, but I can replace with a similar bottle from another year.”

Chances are you’ve forgotten the price difference from 10 minutes ago, and will agree to it.

A variant of this is recommend the label without mentioning any dates (e.g. “I suggest you have your chicken ala overpriced with some Smashed River Valley“). If you just nod, you’ll get the more expensive vintage.


4. Would You Like Something From This Trolley?

This is why smart Dim Sum restaurants push the stuff right up to your face, instead of waiting for you to order. But regardless of cuisine, you’re far more likely to pick something off a trolley than to order it off the menu.

As with point 2, the lack of a price tag makes a big difference. Also, there’s just more temptation when the actual food is within arm’s reach.

If I want to control my spending, I ask the prices when presented with a trolley. It gives my brain an unfair advantage in fights against my stomach. Of course, if you’re with a date, doing that just makes you look cheap.


5.  Would You Like X, Y, or Z?

The rule of threes: if three items are presented in an unfamiliar language, most people will pick the one in the middle. That’s the one the restaurant usually wants to sell, and may have marked up. The next most common choice will be the third option.

That’s probably why Starbucks doesn’t just use ‘small’, ‘medium’, and ‘large’ – ‘tall’, ‘grande’ and ‘venti’ tend to make people order something other than a small drink.

If the three items are presented verbally, and in an unfamiliar language, most people will pick the third. You’re likely to forget the other two names.

Know any trick questions from restaurants? Comment and let us know!



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Ryan Ong

I was a freelance writer for over a decade, and covered topics from music to super-contagious foot diseases. I took this job because I believe financial news should be accessible and fun to read. Also, because the assignments don't involve shouting teenagers and debilitating plagues.