Restaurant upselling: Strategies, tactics, dos and don'ts

Master the art of upselling without compromising the guest experience



Nov 21, 2022 - 5 min read

Restaurant upselling: Strategies, tactics, dos and don'ts

To remain competitive, the restaurant industry, like any other, must develop new ways to generate revenue. One of the strategic ways to achieve this is through "upselling."

In a restaurant, "upselling" means subtly and deftly getting a customer to buy more items or something that costs more than what they were planning to buy. The primary objective is to raise the average order value of each customer.

Most of the onus of encouraging diners to spend more money lies on the wait staff's shoulders. Although waiters accomplish this simply by suggesting dishes on the menu, this upselling method is rather challenging to implement. It takes a lot of finesse to upsell without coming off as aggressive or salesy. Upselling has to be done with a lot of tact to avoid coming across as pushy. If implemented properly, this strategy has the potential to improve the overall experience of guests and help build stronger relationships with those customers.

Upselling may seem like a lot of extra work for the wait staff, but it results in higher tips for them.

Upselling can also be used to promote seasonal items on the menu. The restaurant staff can be instructed to upsell seasonal dishes–which normally have higher margins–to guests. Imagine a restaurant where the wait staff enthusiastically encourages customers to save room for a seasonal dessert made with the season's first crop of green apples. Most guests would be too tempted to refuse such a reasonable proposal.

The process of upselling requires tact and training. It should enhance the guest experience, not ruin it.

Let's take a look at some things restaurants should keep in mind while using upselling as a revenue-generating tactic.

Wait staff attends to a guest

1. Train servers to upsell

The wait staff plays a crucial role in the process of upselling to guests. They can establish a rapport with the customer and gently nudge them into buying additional items, upgrading a meal, or trying a new expensive dessert. 

If, for example, the wait staff is unaware of which dish is spicy, which dish is garlicky, which dish goes well with Pad Thai or egg noodles, and so on, then they are unable to provide helpful recommendations or satisfactory answers to inquiries posed by guests. Before the visitors arrive, the management needs to make sure that the wait staff has a chance to sample the specials so that they may make educated recommendations. When a customer leaves the restaurant happy and satisfied, they are more likely to return in the future.

Here are some golden rules that wait staff can be mindful of:

Don’t pester, don’t be salesy

Don't pursue suggestions if the guest has already rejected them. Take a hint and step back. At any food establishment, the guest should feel welcome, comfortable, and happy; any form of pressure tactic will blow the air out of their joyful balloon. After all, people go to restaurants to be pampered and enjoy exceptional service, so refrain from being overly pushy with recommendations. Also, the suggestions should look like they were made to improve the guest experience, not to make the restaurant more money.

Pose suggestions as questions

In keeping with the preceding notion about not bugging a guest, this strategy works like a charm while respecting the client's free will. 

When a staff member formulates a recommendation as a question, two things happen.

  • The customer is aware that they have the option to decline and doesn't feel pressured or cornered.

  • The recommendation, disguised as a question, piques the guest's interest.

For instance, if a patron orders roast chicken, a knowledgeable member of the wait staff may ask whether or not they would like some full-flavored red wine or oaked chardonnay to go along with the meal. A simple "no" from the guest is also an option, as is the possibility that they will believe the wait staff has extensive knowledge of wine pairings and that purchasing a glass of chardonnay will make their lunch more delightful.

Customer profiling

TableCheck allows guests to specify their preferences when booking a table. The preferences include mentioning the reason for their visit, which may be a birthday party or a date. Many customers indicate their allergies on the booking form as well. This data can be used to improve the customer experience and make appropriate upselling recommendations to them. For example, if it's a birthday party, the waiters can recommend a fantastic sparkling wine to toast the birthday girl with. If it's team drinks, the waiters can recommend their largest vegetarian, vegan, and non-vegetarian food platters for everyone to share.

Before making suggestions or queries, servers should try to read the guest's mood. Did they accept the pleasantries of the staff when they first entered the restaurant? Do they appear distracted, or even irritated? Customers who appear calm and enjoy their interactions with the restaurant staff may be more inclined to respond positively to upselling.

Upsell high-margin items 

The restaurant will make the most money if food and beverage items with the highest profit margins are sold the most. Owners and managers should brief wait personnel on the highest profit items. Untrained wait staff can spend their time trying to sell the $50 dish when the true money-makers could be the chicken strips, fries, or other classic side dishes.

2. Design a menu that upsells itself

The wait staff is the key to upselling, but a well-thought-out menu can also have a big effect on a restaurant's bottom line.

The management needs to figure out which items on the menu are very popular with customers and have high-profit margins. Such dishes are called “star dishes,"  and they can be leveraged to boost sales of other food items. On the menu, the restaurant can list other food options under these star dishes to encourage customers to combine the featured dish with other add-ons for a higher total price.

As an illustration of this, let's imagine that pizza at a certain restaurant is the most popular item on the menu. The business can increase its revenue by giving customers the choice to customize their pizza by paying extra for toppings such as chicken, bacon, ham, sausage, soft drinks, mushrooms, cheese, and other similar items.

In Japan, sushi restaurants can upsell their sushi menu by combining their quality-grade sushi with other low-priced ingredients.

Restaurant manager talks to wait staff

3. Offer dessert and wine samples

Samples of desserts and wine are a terrific way to get your visitors to try new things. Guests are more likely to try something if it's free, so this strategy works. In fact, rather than coming off as salesy or aggressive, the buyer is left feeling delighted by the gesture. If a customer enjoys a sample, they are more likely to place an order for the full serving.

Samples can also be used to entice people who are walking by to come in for a meal. Free samples of food, maybe seasonal specialties, could be given to people walking by the restaurant's entrance. This strategy is likely to work well if the restaurant is on a busy street where hungry shoppers and tired office workers can stop to eat and rest their feet.

4. Sell package or combo deals

Offering packages is a tried and true method for restaurants to boost their bottom line and delight their patrons. Combo meals, family meals, meal for 1, meal for 4, and similar names are common for these sorts of bundles.

When customers see appealing bundles, they often buy more food items. This boosts overall sales. For example, a consumer may have only meant to spend $5 on a burger but ended up spending $9 on the "Meal for 1" package because it also included fries and a drink. The consumer feels they are receiving a good deal because the sum of the three items might easily exceed $9. The establishment, on the other hand, generates more revenue.

5. Leverage guest data

A restaurant's ability to strategically upsell to diners is facilitated by the data collected from their patrons. Guest order histories can be used to target high-spending VIP customers and their specific dining preferences. With this information, upselling to VIP guests is a breeze because they are more receptive to special offers. For instance, if the restaurant has recently acquired a rare vintage red wine, the wait staff can ask the VIP customer, who loves good, expensive wine, if they would like to have a glass of their recent special acquisition.

RELATED: How to use restaurant data and analytics to power your business forward

6. Upsell using EDMs

EDMs are the way to go if your customer is not currently there but has to be tempted to visit the restaurant premises.

A fast food chain or even a more upscale restaurant, for instance, might email a customer about a new lunchtime combo special along with a discount code for 10% off their next visit. To be able to take advantage of the coupon code, the guest would have to visit the establishment. 

Comprehensive in nature and able to be sent in advance, EDMS is useful in this situation since they allow guests to better prepare for important days. For instance, sending an email to customers in December's second week could be one way to promote the NYE buffet and open bar as an alternative to a la carte service. 

TableCheck’s role has been crucial in the restaurant marketing space for its clients. The tech platform has been assisting clients in collecting the email addresses of diners and leveraging those addresses to drive business. The software gives users the ability to automate and personalize their email communications while staying true to their brand identity.

RELATED: How to run successful EDM campaigns

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