Bread, Chips, and Naan

by Ben Miller

The commenters in Ezra’s post about the behavioral economics of bread bring up an interesting point about restaurants dealing with giving free chips and salsa versus paying for it. To a certain extent, I wonder if that reflects the different expectations that American diners have set up for Mexican restaurants versus ones that are likely to serve bread. When you go to a sit-down Mexican restaurant there is an expectation that you will receive some sort of chip and salsa combination (I have never gotten free guacamole as one commenter mentioned, but that sounds amazing.)

On the other hand, there does not appears to be some pre-determined standard of what restaurant will serve bread and which won’t. Potenza, for example served bread. But Sette Osteria, a restaurant that serves similar food, does not.* I could get fairly similar dishes at both places at roughly equivalent prices, but one has made the choice to serve bread, while the other has not.

At the opposite end of the expectation that Mexican restaurants will provide chips and salsa is Indian restaurants and naan. I don’t believe that I have ever received free naan while dining at an Indian restaurant, and so am accustomed to having to pay a few dollars to receive some.

Then of course there is the middle ground of rice at Asian restaurants. Some places give it to you, some charge a dollar or so for it. And then others offer white rice for free but charge extra for brown–think of it as the equivalent of paying some extra money to “upgrade” your bread.

It all plays into the pre-conceived notion that I have established from years of dining. Mexican restaurants will give me free chips and salsa, Indian establishments will charge me for naan, and sometimes I will pay for rice. If we adjusted our bread expectations closer to those of Indian restaurants, then maybe the notion of paying for it would not be such a big deal.

*I’m pretty sure that’s the case, if I’m wrong let me know.

4 responses to “Bread, Chips, and Naan

  1. (Reposted from comment thread on earlier article.)

    If I ran a restaurant and had housemade bread of which I was proud, I’d take a middle route:

    Offer bread when diners sit. Let them enjoy it. Then if they ask for more, inform them that the bread is indeed a speciality item, that diners are provided some courtesy of management, that we’re glad they enjoyed it, and that we hope they understand there will be a reasonable $3 charge for additional servings.

    When they agree, bring them a nice large serving of more fine bread and seasoned dipping oil. This way you have happy customers and aren’t just giving away more bread.

    Side benefit: faced with paying for additional bread, some diners will instead consider getting a proper starter.

  2. Your identification of the edge cases is interesting. Not so long ago, bread was a vital part of every meal. Charging for it would be as nonsensical as charging for water or the use of silverware. This is still the case in some situations — consider injera.

    Ultimately, I think I come down on the side of free bread. Dining out isn’t just about maximizing the efficiency with which your money brings you tasty food; it’s about freedom from worry, and on that front there’s something to be said for providing a food that can be idly snacked upon without concern over the bill.

    The points that have been raised about subsidizing other diners’ behavior, or about unpriced bread leaving restaurants no motivation to compete on bread quality are rhetorically sound, but in practice unlikely to be much of a factor: whether delicious or awful, bread is dirt-cheap when purchased at scale. So are salsa and chips. The transfer we’re talking about from bread-abhorring diners a bread fans is minimal. And restaurants can still compete on the basis of bread quality thanks to the prestige a well-crafted loaf can confer (it’s not at all uncommon to read about particularly spectacular bread in a restaurant review, for instance).

    This isn’t to dismiss Ezra’s point about behavioral economics. But the actual costs involved are tiny; pricing bread would almost certainly make no difference to restaurants’ economic behavior, and would inject financial considerations into yet another corner of an experience that’s supposed to be relaxing.

  3. I think the chips and salsa example is a good one. It is indeed standard at the family Mexican type places. Chain mexican or family run Mexican, if it’s going to cost less than $10 a person, you get some basic chips and salsa before your meal.

    But my favorite Mexican place in the neighborhood is a place where a couple will spend $40 to $50 on food and drinks, and they serve very good chips and a couple different types of salsa, and even more for fresh guacamole. Because we are, in fact, paying money for these things, they have an obligation to make them worth it, and the chips and salsa is very good (so good that I get it to go and eat it at the bar next door when we’re there).

    At Momofuku Ssam, mentioned in the original article, you don’t get it free, but if you pay for it, you get some of the best bread and butter you’ll ever have. Which makes it worth it.

  4. Most of the Indian restaurants I frequent (up and down the West Coast) offer complimentary papadum, chutneys, and perhaps a little bowl of pickled mango.

    It is interesting, though, that rice seems to be a mixed bag at Asian restaurants (Indian included). In many cases, I find that charging rice separately is simply a way to manipulate the price of the entree from the perspective of the consumer.

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