The Fine Art of Ordering Off-Menu

Your orders have consequences, even if you don't see them. Here's what happens behind the scenes when you make a special request.

A server explains the menu to a restaurant patron
Photo: Getty Images

It's been almost three years since I left the restaurant business, and somewhere in this city, there is a man who still holds a grudge against me for not selling him a side of guacamole. Like the Skunk Ape, I've never seen them, but tangible reports of sightings confirm that they are real. It's not that I didn't want to sell this person guacamole; it was on the menu. But they didn't want an entire order of it, just a wee bit to accompany their entree. I said no.

"The Customer Is Always Right" is a mantra attributed to various retail magnates and hoteliers over a hundred years ago. It signals a commitment to excellent service, to which most businesses aspire. When it comes to ordering off-menu, this thinking does not apply.

Let's say you bought a piece of property zoned for business, but you want to build a residential house on it. You must appeal to the authority in charge of zoning to provide you with the modification that would allow you to do so. But until you go through this process, and until it is approved, you have a piece of property that you can only build a commercial building on, not a house.

Consider the menu as that piece of property. You might want it to be different, you might feel that it absolutely should be different to make it suit your tastes, but that menu in your hand is what there is. A request for anything more or different need not necessarily be honored. However, I have tips and advice for asking and receiving graciously and increasing your likelihood of a pleasant experience.

Be nice.

By ordering off-menu, you're asking for something extra. Also, hospitality people want to make you happy. I don't know if science has proven that bees like honey over vinegar, but it's a safe assumption. A polite request and some pleases and thank yous go a long way in bolstering your position and might be the added motivation your server needs to approach the kitchen with your request.

We've been working on improving the climate and culture of server/kitchen relations, but historically, asking the kitchen for modifications to a dish has opened your server to hurled abuse. In taking an off-menu order, your server has to receive your request, open themselves to unpleasantries in the kitchen, and brace themselves for further negativity back at the table should the kitchen say no. At least two of these steps are potentially rattling to a person whose job is to be calm and polite to guests. If you can start the exchange off pleasantly, the trepidation of your server decreases, and your chances of being accommodated increase.

Be prepared for rejection and accept it gracefully.

I could have presented a gentler reason to the guacamole man than I did. A portion of guacamole was exactly one avocado. Serving a fraction of an avocado meant that the remainder would go to waste. Putting the cost of an entire order into a smaller portion at a lower price would negate my profit from the following three orders I sold. Economically, it made no sense. Because I was busy, I didn't explain this. Instead, I said, "I'm sorry, we can't do that," and thus earned the years-long ire directed at me.

As hospitality professionals, we honestly do want to make guests happy. But sometimes, going outside the lines for you isn't possible. It may be a cost issue, it may be a logistical problem, or it might be too disruptive and affect the service that we can provide to the other customers.

On another busy weekend night, I was short-staffed and fighting a broken ice cream freezer when someone asked for a grilled vegetable plate. It seems like a simple request. But given the circumstances, no one in the kitchen had the bandwidth to gather vegetables from another part of the kitchen, prep them, and dedicate half of an enormous grill to facilitate the order. When a request is denied, following your server around the restaurant and interrupting them while they tend to other guests is not the best action plan. Nor is cursing at the manager when they ask you to stop. Because when things go this far, I will find the bandwidth required to leave the kitchen and invite you to exit the building, as I did with that guacamole-craving customer. Again, we don't want to tell people no, but they should accept that as part of the give-and-take of ordering off-menu.

Read the room.

Sometimes it's visible, more often it is felt, that a restaurant's energy is different when things aren't running smoothly. There could be staffing issues, the dining room might have been seated at the wrong pace, or personality issues could be affecting morale. The reasons why this could happen to an otherwise well-oiled operation are legion, especially in the current business climate.

If it's apparent that the wheels are wobbling and threatening to fall off, you might want to reconsider departing from the menu purely as a self-defense move. Frayed nerves and frenetic energy are not conducive to easy pivoting to entertain a deviation from the norm. Should you decide to move ahead, do understand that you should lower your expectations of your order being correct.

Be realistic.

Years of experience in all parts of restaurant operations have led me to understand that you can realistically expect that a restaurant will handle a maximum of two changes to a dish properly. Anything above that number increases the probability of problems with your order. Let's say a restaurant has a fried chicken sandwich on the menu. You want that sandwich but would like the chicken grilled, not fried, lettuce instead of the bun to make it a wrap, horseradish instead of the sauce, a salad instead of french fries, and oil and vinegar on the side instead of the house salad dressing.

Restaurants have systems that enable them to feed large amounts of people efficiently every day. A kitchen is a glorified assembly line. Each person has a set of instructions, materials, and processes to produce a plate or part of one. Deviations from those systems slow the efficiency and increase the chances for mistakes.

What happens after you give your order is a game of telephone. The server has to correctly record your order and enter it into the ordering system in a manner understood by the kitchen. The kitchen has to convey the order to the person or people cooking it, who may only be receiving these instructions verbally. The dish then needs proper assembly at pickup time. There are at least four potential failure points between placing your order and receiving it when ordering directly from the menu. Two special requests increase that number to 12, which is within statistical accuracy. Beyond that, you're building on a very shaky foundation, and the odds say that you are setting yourself up for disappointment.

Be fair on social media.

One hard and fast rule as a decent human is that ordering off-menu, with or without success, dictates surrendering your right to post about it on social media or review sites. You haven't eaten what the restaurant offers if you've altered a dish. If it is good to you, great. If it's not satisfactory, there's a chance that the reason lies in your modified order and not in a failing of the restaurant. The dish they presented presumably has everything it needs in the manner they see it best served. You altered that. Finally, if the restaurant denied your request, consider the multiple reasons I've laid out here as tangible. They weren't being inflexible, I swear.

Keep the above advice in mind, and your chances of a pleasant interaction and arriving at the destination you seek increase dramatically. The most important of which is to be kind, whether you're ordering off-menu or not. It's been a tough couple of years for people in this business.

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