Editor's Note: This is a new column on the restaurant industry by David Bakke, who is a columnist with MoneyCrashers.com.
So, will cooks really spit in your food if you send it back to the kitchen? Have servers ever dropped a little liquid ex-lax in the drink of a not-so-friendly customer? Are you constantly worried about whether you are following the tipping etiquette guidelines because you think things like this might happen to you?
I worked in the restaurant industry for a long time and have an insider's knowledge about what really goes on behind the scenes. While I've never witnessed anything extreme, the typical restaurant kitchen is very high-paced with a lot of pressure and stress. These conditions can lead to the staff to take a shortcut or two along the way.
Here is a list of some of the cheats and tricks I've seen happen in restaurants that you may (or may not) want to know about:
1. The Ten-Second Rule (or The Five-Second Rule)
The moniker depends on what kitchen you're in. The basic premise is that if something accidentally falls on the floor of the kitchen and it's there less than 10 seconds, then it's as though it never fell on the floor in the first place and can still be served. Of course, it is not just thrown on the plate and served. It is usually dropped back in the fryer for a second or two, or thrown back on the grill for a few seconds.
2. The "Featured" Item
An item that is "featured" is one that is not necessarily discounted, but one that the servers are expected to suggest to all of their tables. More often than not, the reason is because that particular item is about to go "out of date." Meaning, pretty soon the kitchen won't be able to serve it and it will have to be thrown away. This is not to be confused with any kind of "special" or promotional item, where the restaurant is probably selling them at a rapid pace, meaning the quality and freshness is always high. You might want to avoid any "featured" items.
3. It's Not Burnt, It's Just Overcooked
No cook likes to see it, but nobody's perfect and sometimes things get burned in the kitchen. Picture this: you're the cook and you have a piece of red meat or chicken that is supposed to be cooked well-done and you've ruined it. It's already been 15 minutes and the customer is waiting. This meat or chicken gets a piece of cheese melted over it or a sauce poured on top of it. The same concept can be applied to toasted breads, fish, and just about anything else that can be burned in a kitchen.
4. Your "Special" Order
For the most part, cooks and servers alike are not too thrilled about "special orders." Sure, if it's substituting cole slaw for fries then it's no big deal. What I am referring to is a sandwich that you order with no onion, no tomato, extra pickles, and mustard instead of mayo. Cooks are trained to produce in volume and these special orders can be quite frustrating. So just keep in mind that if your "special" order is prepared normally by mistake, then the cooks certainly don't just start over. You could have just about anybody trying to fix it. It could be the server that is back there pulling the tomatoes off of it, or the person setting up the plates, or even the manager. Do you really want multiple sets of hands on your food? Keep this in mind before placing your next "special" order.
5. "Bringing Back" the Lettuce
Almost all restaurants serve lettuce in one way or another, and most have the standard that the lettuce is cut fresh daily. Well, that's a great concept on paper, but it's another story when trying to balance it against one's profits. Do you have any idea how hard it is to accurately predict how much lettuce you're going to need every night? To prepare "enough" but not "too much"? The solution is if your lettuce is starting to brown slightly, soak it in lemon juice for just about a minute or so. The brown will almost instantly disappear. And you can't really taste the difference at all. Like it or not, a lot of restaurants are using this trick.
David Bakke blogs about topics like frugality, saving money, getting out of debt, and building wealth on the Money Crashers personal finance blog. For more tips on ways to save money while eating out, visit the site.
Do you know of any other "tricks" or shortcuts you've seen take place in kitchens? Any horror stories? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
An insider's guide to five sneaky restaurant cheats