15 Gross Things Restaurants Do to Save Money

Piecing together a frugal ice cream sundae in the movie "Waiting"
Piecing together a frugal ice cream sundae in the movie Waiting | Lionsgate

When most people go out to eat, they expect an establishment to prepare their food in a manner that’s representative of the restaurant’s reputation and price point. If you pay $20 or $30 for a meal, you probably expect it to be prepared carefully and with quality ingredients, whereas if you pay three bucks for a meal, you might expect a few shortcuts here and there. But, at the end of the day, even if restaurants microwave nacho cheese sauce or prepare a few ingredients in advance, the meal should still be delicious (and safe) — no matter how much it costs.

But if you have any experience working in the restaurant business, you know restaurants — as profit-generating businesses — place a great deal of effort into reducing their costs. And, some of these cost reduction tactics are not exactly, well, appetizing to say the least.

Using a publication by The Guardian, our own personal experiences, and information we gathered from current restaurant workers, we’ve created a list of things some restaurants do to save money that they would never advertise on their menus. And it all starts with the ketchup.

1. Combine ketchup bottles

ketchup and fries
Ketchup | iStock.com

It might not be much of a shock, but businesses don’t like to be wasteful. That means combining what’s left in all of those ketchup bottles into one. A lot of people wonder whether marrying ketchup is against health codes. The answer to that question is, “It depends.” According to California’s health code, “Condiments shall be protected from contamination by being kept in dispensers that are designed to provide protection, protected food displays provided with the proper utensils, original containers designed for dispensing, or individual packages or portions.” But codes vary across locations, and different restaurants have different methods of marrying ketchup — some more sanitary than others.

Next: Is your food actually fresh off the grill?

2. Microwave and pre-prepare foods

Microwave | iStock.com

The restaurant business is tough to succeed in, and with average pre-tax profit margins of as low as 2% in some restaurants, owners look for cost savings everywhere. Timing is vital to a restaurant’s success and smooth operations. Not only do customers expect their meals to arrive at the table quickly (often in 12 minutes or so), but everything in a restaurant is on a schedule.

A lot of restaurants — not only fast-food restaurants — pre-cook and microwave foods, so when the lunch or dinner rush arrives, they can have the food out quickly. They also do this for uniformity and so a typical cook can prepare these foods without incident. So those fresh veggies you ordered might very well be microwaved. And that pasta dish might have been prepared well before you arrived, reheated and decorated nicely for you.

Next: Cost-cutting efforts spill over onto the payroll, too.

3. Hire underpaid and undereducated staff

a server at a table
Server | iStock.com

Few kitchen workers earn significant amounts of money. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a restaurant cook earns a median salary of around $22,000, which equals around $10.65 per hour. Waiters and waitresses might earn even less, with median wages of less than $9 per hour. Additionally, to save on costs, many restaurants also have their waiters and waitresses serve other purposes outside of simply serving food. They might act as the cleaning crew or fill-in dishwashers.

Next: You might be surprised to learn your menu is chock-full of meaningless jargon.

4. Use fancy names to sell cheap or unappetizing menu items

Menu | iStock.com

Would you order “Toothfish” from a menu? What about “Chilean Sea Bass?” Although they are the same thing, many diners would prefer the sea bass to the toothfish, explains the Guardian.

From your wine to your dinner, many restaurant menus (especially at nicer restaurants) use the name and image of an item to help sell it. You might be getting something cheap — or something you’d otherwise never eat — because its name sounds enticing.

According to the Guardian, “Instead of stocking the same brands of wine available in liquor stores, restaurants can place something called an SLO, or special liquor order, for wines not found in U.S. stores. [One] restaurant … found a Santana Tempranillo wine that retailed at $2.50 a bottle. The restaurant sold it at $15 a bottle, and everyone seemed to enjoy it, never knowing they were paying 6 times the price.”

Next: Another way to save money? Don’t wash the tablecloths.

5. Don’t wash the linens

heap of folded white cloth fabrics on wooden table
Heap of folded white cloth fabrics on wooden table | jes2ufoto/Getty Images

You might have heard rumors about hotels — specifically that they don’t wash the sheets or bed covers. That same rumor plagues many restaurants except it involves the linens — tablecloths, mostly — rather than bed covers. Some probably don’t, as cleaning costs can add up over time. But it’d be pretty obvious if all of the linens were covered with sauces and crumbs all the time. An easier way? Just get rid of them altogether.

Next: Do you know how many bare hands have touched your food before you eat it?

6. Workers go gloveless

Friendly chef preparing vegetables
Chef preparing vegetables | iStock.com/Minerva Studio

Because these workers earn such low pay, they are not always motivated to learn food safety, practice proper sanitation, and take pride in the food they’re serving. According to data published in Food Safety News, a study found “62% of restaurant workers handling raw ground beef with their bare hands did not wash up before handling other ready-to-eat foods or cooked ground beef.”

And that’s only the beginning of an array of scary statistics. The study observed workers (in 40% of restaurants) wiping their hands on their aprons after handling raw foods.

Next: Even worse than that, many workers come into work sick.

7. Sick employees

A waitress who is not going to miss her shift
A sick waitress might not miss her shift. | iStock.com/samotrebizan

Again, you have to go back to the low wages prevalent in the restaurant business. When you’re not making a lot of money, you can’t afford to miss a shift. So if you’re sick that just means you’re going to be sick and working, despite the fact that you could spread your illness to others. Many low-wage workers don’t have sick days to use and don’t really have the option of “calling out.”

Next: Do you use the “5-second rule” at home? Strap in.

8. Liberal use of the “5-second rule”

Spaghetti on floor
This spaghetti is still good, according to some restaurant managers. | iStock.com

Sometimes, food gets dropped on the floor. It isn’t a big deal if it’s your own kitchen. But if it’s the filthy floor of a commercial restaurant? That’s a different story. Still, the “5-second rule” wins out in many cases. Obviously, this isn’t going to be any restaurant’s official policy. But you can bet it happens, and there’s really no way of knowing other than biting into something that was formerly lodged in a floor mat.

Next: What’s worse, perhaps, is when restaurants knowingly prepare food that is past its shelf life.

9. Serve moldy or expired food

Perfectly normal bread with no mold
Perfectly normal bread with no mold | iStock.com/divgradcurl

Like employing the “5-second rule” at home, you might occasionally eat something that’s expired if you can assure yourself it’s still edible. If you’re a restaurant manager, it can be harder to throw things out knowing it’s costing you money, and it can be easier to serve it anyway. It’s hard to say how widespread of an issue this is, but it does happen. You’ll just have to hope it doesn’t happen to you.

Next: At least you can count on the dishes and silverware to be clean, right? Right?

10. Skimp on dishwashing

A standard kitchen dishwasher
A standard kitchen dishwasher | iStock.com

Almost everyone has had an experience with dirty dishes. You know, you’re out to eat and notice lipstick on your glass or some egg or leafy vegetable stuck to a fork or plate. It happens. When you’re washing an insane amount of dishes, things slip through. But there are some places that don’t do their due diligence to ensure things are clean. You might hear stories about how plates are just rinsed off rather than put through the dishwasher. Again, it’s probably pretty rare considering it would be a huge health code violation, but if you’ve been around the restaurant industry, you’ve seen some things.

Next: That includes sketchy food storage.

11. Store food inadequately

Meat Section at the Supermarket
Meat aisle | iStock.com/artisteer

When you start working with food, you’re taught how certain things should be stored. For example, you put dry goods higher on the shelf than you would with other goods. And, perhaps most importantly, meat, poultry, dairy, and seafood need to be stored at (or below) certain temperatures. If not, foodborne illness becomes a very real possibility. But it doesn’t always happen. The power might go out, or the freezer might malfunction. Or maybe someone just left some salmon out for too long. It’s hard to justify throwing it away — it’s expensive after all. Restaurants might just serve it up and hope for the best.

Next: That’s hard to stomach but not as hard to stomach as the realization many eateries are crawling with vermin.

12. Learn to live with vermin

Dead cockroach
Dead cockroach | iStock.com/tenra

Roaches, rats, and other critters need to eat, too. That’s why it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that many restaurants are engaged in active battles to keep these pests out — or, at the very least, to keep them out of eyeshot from paying customers. These battles can be costly. And for that reason, they might feel redundant to a restaurant owner. So be aware you might be sharing your meal (the part that falls on the floor anyway) with a fuzzy buddy.

Next: And what you don’t eat? Sometimes, it’s recycled into something that someone will eat tomorrow.

13. Recycle the leftovers

Take-out, leftovers, food
Today’s lunch is tomorrow’s brunch. | iStock.com

Restaurants don’t like to waste food. It’s throwing money away. So, what do you do if you have several hamburgers on the grill at the end of the night? You turn them into something else. Chili, maybe?

Yes, restaurants will get creative with their leftovers and often incorporate them into other dishes. It’s less wasteful and usually isn’t much of a health or safety issue. But you should know it’s something that occurs, fairly frequently, at many commercial eateries.

Next: Potential entrees aren’t the only thing being recycled.

14. Snack circulation

Chex Mix
Chex Mix | iStock.com

Many places will offer up snacks, such as nuts or pretzels, to those who want them. This is a nice feature, but you should be aware these snacks are probably coming out of a large bin or barrel, and the portion you don’t eat is getting dumped right back in. So if you’re munching on some pretzels and enjoying a Rolling Rock, know you might not be the first to have handled those salty little buggers.

Next: But wait, we’re not done with the topic of recycling.

15. Recycling garnishes

Daiquiri garnished with lime sitting on a bar
Daiquiri at Bathtub Gin | Christine Skopec/The Cheat Sheet

We’ll finish off with one final act of restaurant recycling — this time, it’s the garnishes. You know garnishes, the little things that add some decor to a drink or plate, but you might not actually eat? Well, if they make their way back to the kitchen, that orange slice or olive might just end up in or on someone else’s order. Again, this isn’t going to be a standard procedure listed in any rulebook. But if it’s a chance to boost the margins, some restaurants will take it.

Additional reporting by Erika Rawes.

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