Would you bring your own food to a restaurant?
There are two, sometimes conflicting, rules in the restaurant business:
- The restaurant’s duty is to create memorable experiences for the guest
- The restaurant makes and sells food in order to pay its bills and make a profit
In general, when a guest arrives and does what is expected of them – i.e. orders things from your menu that you have carefully designed or selected – and pays the bill we are able to meet both rules. The team can focus on creating a memorable (happy) experience and the restaurant is paid for doing their job well.
However, when a guest decides that it’s OK for them to bring their own food (in this case a cake) to the restaurant without even a polite request or mention in advance, the restaurant is put into a difficult position. One school of thought says that rule 1 is most important as this, in turn, will generate more of rule 2 – make the guest happy above all else and success follows. Others argue that cakeage covers the cost of the waiter’s time and washing the dishes, helps offset the loss of revenue from in-house desserts and makes up for the extra time a party will be at the table but not ordering food (and so contributing to the bills).
Let’s look at an analogy – if you took your car to the garage to have it serviced and they found something needed fixing, you would expect to pay for the parts and the labour charges to do so. However, if you took something along with you that you had bought yourself (like a new mirror or an audio system) and asked them to ‘just fit this while they’re there’ they would charge you labour costs. If you told them you expected it to be fitted free since they were working on the car anyway, they would probably laugh at you or you would find the new part still in its box in the boot (trunk for my US readers) when you picked up the car.
Cakes are an important part of a celebration, so it is no surprise that people sometimes bring them along to a restaurant as a fitting finale for a special meal. Since it costs resources (time and utilties) restaurants often charge customers to cut and plate the cake. The practice has come to be called cakeage. It’s a play on the word corkage, the fee a restaurant levies to open a bottle of wine brought by the customer.
One restaurateur goes a step further on Instagram. Neal McCarthy, the general manager and co-owner of Atlanta’s Miller Union, has taken to posting images of the apparently cheap, sometimes garish-looking cakes to his (unfortunately) private Instagram. Like many in the business, he views the practice of taking a cake to a restaurant that employs a pastry chef an abomination.
And, yes, he charges customers a cakeage fee.
He asks: “Am I going to bring in my own piece of Wagyu beef or an appetizer I just whipped up at home and ask a place to serve it?”
OxfordDictionaries.com added the word cakeage in 2015, but it has been around longer. The San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen used the term as a joke as early as 1991.
How Much is Cakeage?
Eateries around London charge up to £9 per person for arriving with their own baked treat even if they are spending large amounts of money on a meal. One of our waitresses at Meejana said it was common and most places she had worked, from pubs to restaurants, often added a small charge for cakeage.
Those who have introduced the levy include Savoy hotel, restaurants run by Gordon Ramsay and Bodean’s barbecue chain, according to a survey by the Sunday Times. Kaspar’s Seafood Bar & Grill at the Savoy charge £9 per guest if they bring their own cake. A receptionist at Ramsay’s Savoy Grill said that guests would be charged an extra £5 each; a similar charged is levied at the celebrity chef’s Michelin-star Maze restaurant in Mayfair and at The Narrow in east London. The St John restaurant in Smithfield, central London, charges £7.50 per person if dessert is not ordered. The Thomas Cubitt in Belgravia and its three sister pubs charge an extra £3.50 per person while The Cinnamon Club in Westminster charges an extra £5 per person if desserts are not ordered.
Some restaurants, like Daniel in New York, simply don’t allow cakes to be brought in. A call to inquire about bringing a cake was met with the offer of an in-house alternative: a $50 cake that would serve six. But Gramercy Tavern encouraged a caller to bring a cake, cheerfully adding that there would be no fee. Momofuku Má Pêche in Midtown (which sells desserts from its sister operation, Milk Bar) charges a $5-per-person plating fee, but passionately outlines the attributes of ordering one of the whole cakes made by the pastry chef Christina Tosi.
Lines of Distinction
If you really want to take your own cake, here’s a pro tip: call the restaurant and ask for permission. It’s a matter of courtesy and respect, said Emily Luchetti, the star San Francisco pastry chef. “If you call ahead,” she said, “9 times out of 10 you can talk to the restaurant owner and the person will probably say it’s OK.”
“It’s a restaurant and it’s the hospitality industry,” said Vinny Accardi, who runs Room 55 in Queens, which was featured in a recent episode of “Restaurant Startup” on CNBC. “The whole goal is to make people have a good time.” You can see he follows rule 1.
People show up at his small restaurant about once a month with a cake. “The owner in me says it’s stupid to lose a table of 10 or 12 people from not allowing them to bring a cake,” he said. He doesn’t charge a fee, but he thinks cakeage based on half the average price of a dessert is fair.
The notion of bringing in one’s own cake is perhaps more offensive to pastry chefs than to restaurant owners. Bill Corbett – a veteran of kitchens in San Francisco and New York – says that if a restaurant has any kind of a pastry program, leave the cake at home and ask the restaurant to make you a cake.
Still, it has happened at nearly every restaurant he has worked in, including WD-50, where a customer once arrived with a cake from Cold Stone Creamery covered with sprinkles. Sam Mason, the pastry chef, refused to touch it.
“He didn’t want anyone in the dining room to see it and think it came out of his kitchen,” Mr. Corbett said.
Of course, a supermarket cake with “Lordy, Lordy, Look Who’s 40” scribbled in black frosting is a far cry from a creation from an experienced patissier.
At Meejana, we have seen so many variations on this theme over the past 9 years and an increase recently in the number of people who just show up with a cake without any mention of it when they booked. We have had guests arrive with everything from amazing cakes created by artisan patissiers through to home-baked creations which looked like something out of school cookery class in first grade.
The real shift has been the attitude of the guest. They have decided that it is their right to bring their own dessert without asking since “they are paying you money” (which I quote) for dinner, and sadly the majority of these newly entitled cake-wielding customers also treat the team rudely throughout the proceedings, generally order much less than a regular guest and grandstand at every opportunity in an attempt to embarrass the team and subjugate them. And if they don’t get their way, they scurry off to the review sites like TripAdvisor to further berate you. One example from last month was a guest who ordered 2 starters and 3 main courses between 5 adults, then complained it was not enough food and refused to pay cakeage and still demanded we serve the cake.
Until recently we had no issue with serving a guest’s cake – announced or otherwise – as it didn’t happen very often and the guests were appreciative of this little touch. well behaved and understanding of the extra work required.
However, with this unfortunate shift in the attitude of the guest (and regularity of its occurrence), we have introduced a £2.50 cover charge per guest for cakeage if they do not order desserts or cakes from us.
Update: July 2019
We still have guests bring cakes to the restaurant, some unannounced, for celebrations but we have found that the waiver of the cakeage fee generally creates more positive feelings towards the restaurant. Some guests even offer some to the team to enjoy which is a nice touch. Sadly, some don’t value the service enough to tip accordingly, but overall they tell their friends what a good time they had and it seems to have a nett positive effect on business; if they are happy they will likely return along with their friends! Win-Win!