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How to upsell food: Cheatsheet for budding restaurants, QSRs, and fast casuals

Creating a successful, sustainable restaurant business means making smart, financially driven decisions consistently, and upselling is one of them.

By Chloe Chaplin

While many tar upselling with the ‘pushy’ brush, it doesn’t have to be this way. Thoughtful, gentle upselling at the right moment should be just as much about the needs of your guests as it is about adding a little extra to your bottom line. The best examples of upselling show that your team are passionate about the restaurant, and the food and drinks they’re serving, and knowledgeable enough to guide guests to have an amazing experience.

Upselling shouldn’t make you cringe – it’s about going above and beyond for your customer in a way that helps the business at the same time. To do this effectively, staff need to be trained. They need to know the menu intimately and be able to speak about it confidently. In addition, they should also know which dishes are most profitable and therefore the most important to move. Staff also need to be trained to build rapport and trust with customers, as without this, they’ll have a hard time selling anything. They also need to know how to read customer cues so that they can understand when it’s ok to offer more and when it’s best to leave it. This intuition and attention to detail is vital.

Some methods of upselling lend themselves better to different business types. We’ve rounded up some simple up-selling techniques here to help guide you.

Fine dining

Perhaps more than any other category, upselling to fine diners needs to be handled carefully. People who are making the choice to invest in a fine-dining experience don’t want to feel that they’re being sold to or pushed into something they don’t want. That said, upselling in a fine-dining restaurant can have significant upside if it’s done right.

The best approach is to consider appropriate upsell elements as opportunities to enhance the customer experience. By focusing not on what’s going to get the most money out of a diner, servers should focus on what will take their night from good to great.

Here are some easy ways to upsell in a fine-dining setting:

Cocktails to start

Customers can take a while to decide on wine or other drinks, so it’s always a good idea to offer them a signature cocktail on arrival. Not only is this a great opportunity to upsell, it’s also a lovely way to start the meal and gets people in the mood for fun.

Guide wine choices 

Often customers will defer to the sommelier to help them make a wine choice. By listening to what your customer wants, you’re then able to guide them and help them choose a wine they will love. Upselling can come into play here because if a customer points out a particular style of wine or bottle they like, you are able to suggest similar alternatives that have a slightly higher price point but that you think they will enjoy even more. Similarly, if your restaurant offers matched wines with courses, this is a great way to upsell, as it means customers will generally spend more on average than they would on a bottle of wine, plus it’s also a great way to demonstrate what the restaurant has to offer.

Know the menu

There will always be items on the menu that are more profitable than others, so it makes sense to push these ones as much as possible when taking orders. Whether it be a higher-priced special or just a dish that you know contains a higher margin, guiding guests towards these options is a good way to go. And no matter what, make sure to prompt customers to order sides to accompany whatever meals they choose.

Don’t forget the water

Always offer bottles of sparkling water instead of tap. Customers are more likely to indulge in this in a fine dining setting and it can give the final bill a nice little bump without being intrusive or pushy.

Dessert

Often, customers will have made up their mind that they won’t get dessert well before it’s actually time for it, so it’s a good idea to make a habit of leaving the dessert menu at the end of the main meal regardless, so they have the chance to peruse and be tempted.

Quick Service

On the opposite end of the spectrum to fine dining is quick service restaurants. In this case, the concern with upselling is less about subtlety and more about consistency; making sure to identify the opportunities to increase the average cost per sale and then ensuring they’re offered to every customer.

Customers can be given the option to upsize or make their order a meal deal, to increase the total spend, and, if online ordering is available, giving them the option to easily add extras (eg extra cheese on your pizza) is a good way to go as well.

Fast casual

Not quick service and not fine dining, fast casual restaurants need to take learnings from both ends of the spectrum when it comes to upselling.

Here are a few easy ways:

Suggesting sides

As above, it’s always a good idea to prompt customers to add some veggies, a salad, or some fries to enhance their meal and bump up the cost of sale. Servers should use their knowledge of what works well with what dish and use this as an opportunity to make meals even better.

Offer free samples

It’s no secret that people like to try before they buy, so any opportunity to facilitate this is a good opportunity to showcase your offerings and hopefully prompt a sale. For example, a cafe might place a sample of some pastries at the counter or a bar might offer complimentary bites with the first drink to whet customers’ appetites and prompt them to order more.

Don’t assume they’re done

It’s always a good idea to offer customers coffee or drinks on arrival, but it’s also important to make sure you keep checking in to see if they’d like more drinks throughout their meal. Often, diners will keep ordering drinks every time they’re asked, so just the act of posing the question can pay off nicely.

Work the menu

Your menu should be designed to highlight your high-profit items – positioning them strategically in a way that will stand out. For example, most menus are read from the top right corner, so it’s a good idea to place your must-sell items there. How you describe these menu items is also important – descriptions should be short and punchy and written in a way that conveys the deliciousness of the dish.

Make use of technology

Some POS software systems (cough, Kounta, cough) have the option to prompt staff to ask that all-important upsell question that you’re currently pushing. Adding this step means that staff don’t need to come up with (or remember) an upselling option on any particular day – it’s built in!