With Our Compliments: When Should You Dish Out Free Stuff?

Sometimes, it’s the best you can do. Other times, it’s a simple welcome gesture. Either way, doesn’t free food unanimously solve all your problems – not create them?

You’d think. After Tom Sietsema, a well-recognised critic from the Washington Post, reviewed a Friendship Heights restaurant, he got an unusual response from his readers. They pointed out that, because he routinely gets recognised in restaurants, the general public doesn’t get the same treatment he does (a case in point: when Sietsema ‘anonymously’ visited Trabocchi, he realised the game was up when he was given a dish with shaved black truffle on top – there was no truffle on the menu). In reply to his reader’s grievance, he returned to the Friendship Heights restaurant, this time sporting a wig and false teeth. The experience was completely different, and he dropped half a star from the original review.

Knowing when and when not to give out free things can be a tricky business. On the get-go, it can send the right ripples across the industry, helping spread word. Or it can publicly embarrass a restaurant. I asked Katrina Kutchinsky, founder of KK Communications – which has dealt with Aster, Mac & Wild, and D & D London – how to strike the right balance.

Don’t blame the complainers

On one hand, mistakes happen. On the other, there are people out there who cause a fuss because they think they’ll get free food out of it. As a nation, we’re known for our embarrassment when it comes to openly complaining in person. But when it does happen, generally customers are being sincere about their experience. ‘I think if someone is really unhappy with the food or service it is best to comp something,’ says Katrina. ‘Or invite them back in if they’ve complained afterwards.’

Impress the press

While individual invites don’t guarantee coverage, many restaurants or PRs acting on their behalf know that if a restaurant extends a press invitation, it at least gets them on a notable person’s radar. Most of the time, as Katrina says, an invite to a restaurant is to ‘ensure they visit the venue and write or post about it – it is often the only way we can get them to attend.’

While that may be the ultimate goal with individual invitations, press events and opening parties are a different matter. ‘I would say that sometimes it can be about playing the long game,’ says Katrina. ‘We don’t always expect an immediate benefit, but we hold press events because it ultimately groups a lot of top press and opinion formers in our venues, and that usually always leads to positive press and a buzz generated about them. People like to feel like they are attending an exclusive preview and so I think they really do work.’

While some some PR firms are quite relaxed about whether or not they get something in return, others are stauncher on their you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours doctrine. ‘We are very active at identifying people who simply come to events and ask for free stuff and then don’t do anything,’ says Katrina. ‘We weed them out and ensure they don’t attend our events.’

Keep regulars happy

The idea is simple: bring back even 5% of your audience and, according to a Harvard Business School report, you’ll see profits soar by 25 to 95%. How to maintain a good relationship with regulars? One way many restaurants, even neighbourhood ones, do it is to strike something like coffee or dessert off the bill. The guest will remember it – if you’ve been in their shoes, it’s nice knowing your regular custom is appreciated. ‘We always suggest that loyal and local customers are rewarded and incentivised to keep coming back,’ says Katrina. ‘It varies according to venue, as each are different and located in different neighbourhoods, but I would always say added value over any form of discount works best.’

Silence the critics

With whoever you’re dealing with, a little complimentary food and drink can go a long way. Generally though, there’s one big exception. And if you didn’t get it from before, it’s worth repeating – ‘Never put drinks on the house [for critics],’ says Katrina. ‘They hate that. They don’t want special treatment; they want to have as close an experience to an ordinary customer as possible.’

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