The Basics of Up-Selling Menu Items

Couple at dinner eating a desert.

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Servers (also known as waiters and waitresses) are a key part of your restaurant staff. Without good service, few customers would return to any restaurant. A good server does more than just wait on customers. He or she is a salesperson. (Perhaps they should be called sellers, instead.) They should not just be taking orders and delivering food. They should be selling a product- your restaurant menu.

What Is Up-Selling?

A good server knows how to up-sell. Up-selling is simply getting a customer to spend more than he was originally intending. For example:

Customer: “I’ll have a martini, strait up.”
Server: “Do you have a preference on the gin? We carry Bombay and Beefeaters.”
Customer: “Beefeaters, please.”

The server did not take the drink order and walk away. Instead, she offered a more expensive liquor. If she hadn’t the customer would have bought a martini made with well gin. That’s fine, but a good server will always try to offer something a little nicer and a little bit more expensive. A restaurant may be classified as a food and beverage operation, but that doesn’t mean its employees shouldn’t employ salesperson tactics.

Chain restaurants, such as McDonald's, employ up-selling all the time. Whenever the person working the drive-through asks if you want to super-size your number seven, or if you want the extra hash brown for thirty cents, that is up-selling in its most basic and unrefined form.

Up-Selling Basics

In a restaurant, up-selling should be done with a little more finesse. The key to up-selling is to do it in a way that the customer doesn’t know he or she is being sold something. For example:

Server: “Would you care to start with an appetizer tonight? Our chef is running our house favorite, a baked lobster dip with crostini.”
Customer: “That sounds good. What else is in it?”
Server: “It has a creamy alfredo sauce with roasted red peppers, artichoke hearts and fresh lobster. I have one whenever I come in for dinner.”
Customer: “That sounds great! We’ll have one!”

The server didn’t wait to hear if the customer wanted an appetizer. Instead, she just went right ahead and told them about a popular special the kitchen was running. Let's say the customer doesn’t like lobster. The server already has his attention and can offer another appetizer instead. For example:

Customer: “No thanks. I’m allergic to seafood.”
Server: “The kitchen is also running a delicious tomato-basil bruschetta served with seasoned olive oil and crusty French bread.”
Customer: “Hmmm, that sounds good. I’ll take one.”

Okay, so maybe not every restaurant conversation goes this smoothly or politely, but you get the idea. The server is trained to automatically offer an appetizer to start the meal. However, she knows better than to badger the customer. If the customer says they don’t want an appetizer, she won’t stand there offering everything on the menu, until they pick something. She will move on to the entrée.

Up-Selling the Entrée

Let’s say the customer isn’t interested in an appetizer or a drink special. He knows exactly what he wants. That doesn’t mean our server can’t still employ a few more up-selling techniques. For example:

Customer: “I’ll have the Chicken Marsala.”
Server: “Would you like to add a soup or a salad to your entrée? Today’s soup is cream of wild mushroom.”
Customer: “Hmmm, that sounds good. I‘ll take a cup.”

There is another couple of dollars added to the bill and the server’s tip.

Up-Selling Dessert

Finally, the ultimate up-sell. Dessert. The best way to up-sell desserts is to give a mouthwatering description.

Good Example: “Would you care for a slice of our homemade chocolate layer cake. It is layered with a rich dark chocolate ganache and raspberry filling and served with our signature chocolate velvet sauce.”
Bad Example: “Do you want some dessert.”

Offer dessert before the customer has a chance to think about it. Describe it, make the customer want it. Make it tempting. Suggest a table split one or two desserts, rather than trying to sell a separate dessert to each guest. And offer to follow up dessert with a hot cup of coffee, perhaps a specialty coffee such as cappuccino or espresso. Or maybe a nice after dinner drink, like port or cordial. A good server can tack on extra ten dollars or more per person, just by up-selling dessert and drinks, not only increasing the restaurant’s profits but her tip as well.​

Final Word

Up-selling should be part of your employee training. All servers should know the basics of up-selling, from offering top-shelf liquor to knowing how to give a mouthwatering description of menu items. Up-selling not only increases restaurant sales, but it also makes for bigger tips for servers and it shows customers that your staff is knowledgeable as well as friendly.