How to Master the Art of Ordering Off the Menu

It’s been almost three years since I left the restaurant business, and somewhere in this town there’s a man still mad at me for not selling him a side of guacamole. As the skunk monkey, I have never seen them, but tangible reports of sightings confirm that they are real. It’s not that I didn’t want to sell guacamole to this person; it was on the menu. But they didn’t want a whole order of it, just a tiny bit to go with their entree. I said no.

“The customer is always right” is a mantra attributed to various retail and hotel magnates over a hundred years ago. It signals a commitment to excellent service, which most companies aspire to. When it comes to ordering off the menu, this consideration does not apply.

Let’s say you have purchased a property zoned for business, but want to build a residential home there. You must contact the zoning authority to provide you with the amendment that would allow you to do this. But until you go through that process, and until it’s approved, you have a property that you can only build a commercial building on, not a house.

Think of the menu as that piece of property. You might want it to be different, you might think it absolutely should be different to suit your tastes, but that menu in your hand is what it is. A request for anything more or different does not have to be honored. However, I have tips and advice for asking and receiving gracefully and increasing your chances of having a pleasurable experience.

[Hero Image Credit: Brock Wegner/Unsplash; Featured Image Credit: Spencer Davis/Unsplash]

Be nice

Order off menu
Image Credit: Jessie McCall/Unsplash

By ordering off the menu, you are asking for something more. Also, hotel people want to make you happy. I don’t know if science has proven that bees prefer honey to vinegar, but it’s a safe guess. A polite request and a few pleases and thanks go a long way to solidifying your position and could be the extra motivation your server needs to approach the kitchen with your request.

We’ve been working on improving the climate and culture of the server/kitchen relationship, but historically asking the kitchen to alter a dish has opened your server up to abuse. By taking an off-menu order, your server should take your request, be open to disagreements in the kitchen, and be prepared for more negativity at the table if the kitchen says no. At least two of these steps can upset a person whose job it is to be calm and polite with guests. If you manage to start the exchange pleasantly, the apprehension of your server decreases, and your chances of being hosted increase.

Prepare for rejection and accept it with grace

I could have presented a sweeter reason to the guacamole man than I did. A serving of guacamole was exactly an avocado. Serving a fraction of avocado meant the rest 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 next 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 earned years of anger directed at me.

As hospitality professionals, we honestly want to make customers happy. But sometimes thinking outside the box for you is not possible. It may be a cost issue, it may be a logistical issue, or it may be too disruptive and affect the service we can provide to other customers.

On another busy weekend night, I was understaffed and battling a broken ice cream freezer when someone asked for a plate of grilled vegetables. It looks 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, prepare them, and dedicate half of a huge grill to easy ordering. When a request is declined, following your server around the restaurant and interrupting him while he attends to other customers is not the best course of action. Or curse the manager when they ask you to stop. Because when things get this far, I’ll find the bandwidth to leave the kitchen and invite you out of the building, like I did with that guacamole-hungry customer. Again, we don’t want to say no to people, but they should accept this as part of the compromise of ordering off the menu.

Read the piece

Order off menu
Image credit: Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash

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

If it’s obvious that the wheels are wobbling and threatening to fall off, you might want to reconsider leaving the menu purely as a self-defense move. Frayed nerves and frenetic energy are not conducive to easy pivoting to nurture a deviation from the norm. If you decide to go ahead, understand that you need to lower your expectations for the accuracy of your order.

To be realistic

Years of experience in all parts of restaurant operation have led me to understand that you can reasonably expect a restaurant to properly handle a maximum of two changes in a dish. Anything above this number increases the likelihood of problems with your order. Let’s say a restaurant has a fried chicken sandwich on the menu. You want this sandwich but would like the chicken grilled not fried, lettuce instead of the bun to make a wrap, horseradish instead of gravy, salad instead of fries, and oil and vinegar as an accompaniment instead of the house salad dressing.

Restaurants have systems that allow them to efficiently feed large numbers of people each 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 these systems slow down efficiency and increase the risk of errors.

Order off menu
Image credit: Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash

What happens after you place your order is a phone game. The server must correctly register your order and enter it into the ordering system in a way that the kitchen understands. The kitchen must pass the order on to the person or people cooking it, who may only receive these instructions verbally. The dish must then be assembled correctly at the time of collection. There are at least four potential points of failure between placing your order and receiving it when ordering directly from the menu. Two special requests bring this number to 12, which is within the limits of statistical precision. Beyond that, you’re building on a very shaky foundation, and odds are that you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

Be fair on social media

A hard and fast rule as a decent human is that ordering off the menu, successful or unsuccessful, dictates giving up your right to post about it on social media or review sites. You have not eaten what the restaurant offers if you have changed a dish. If it’s good for you, great. If this is not satisfactory, it is possible that the reason lies in your changed order and not in a failure of the restaurant. The dish they presented presumably has everything it needs the way they see it best served. You changed this. Finally, if the restaurant has refused your request, consider the multiple reasons I have outlined here as tangible. They weren’t inflexible, I swear.

Keep the tips above in mind and your chances of having a pleasant interaction and arriving at the destination you are looking for will increase dramatically. The most important thing is to be nice, whether you order off the menu or not. These two years have been difficult for people in this sector.

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