Customer Experience

Comped Meals: What They Are, Plus When and How to Offer Them

By Dana Krook

Customer looking dissatisfied with her plate of food in front of restaurant employee

Happy guests can make the difference between a restaurant’s success and failure. That means customer satisfaction is the primary goal of every restaurant owner and manager. But what happens when your guests don’t like their food, the service they received, or another aspect of their dining experience?

That’s when a comp – a complimentary meal or menu item – may come into play.

Occasionally, a manager will offer to comp a dish, or even an entire meal, in response to a guest’s complaints. However, there are both advantages and drawbacks to this approach. Read on for a closer look at restaurant comps, the factors to consider when deciding whether to offer comped meals, and how to make the most of the comps you offer.

What Is a Comped Meal?

A comped meal is when a restaurant owner or manager (or less frequently, a server) waives the cost of part or all of a guest’s meal. A comp may be offered to help offset a mistake that was made or to celebrate a special occasion, such as offering a piece of cake to a guest celebrating her birthday or glasses of champagne to a couple celebrating their anniversary.

A comped meal may be offered in the following situations: 

  • The quality of the dish was inferior.
  • The guest was served the wrong dish.
  • A guest asked for a meal to be prepared in a specific way but wasn’t accommodated. 
  • Service was extremely slow or very poor.
  • The guest is a regular and you want to offer a comp as thanks. 
  • The guest is celebrating a special occasion, such as a job promotion or birthday.
  • The guest is an industry colleague, such as a chef or general manager at another restaurant. 

A comp can help calm an unhappy guest, BUT comping shouldn’t be a knee-jerk reaction to a minor complaint or issue. Ideally, comping should be done thoughtfully and in accordance with your restaurant’s policy. 

Without such a policy in place, your staff may approve too many comped meals, which can have a number of negative consequences for your restaurant. In excess, comps could hurt your profit margin, impact your servers’ tips, and encourage guests to have an unrealistic expectation of future comps. 

Who Should Be Allowed to Comp a Meal?

Staff members with the authority to determine whether a dish or meal may be comped vary by restaurant. Many restaurants allow only managers to offer comps, while others will allow servers to offer them as well. 

If you are giving servers this ability, you should have a written policy that describes when comped meals can be offered, including whether family and friends can ever be offered free or discounted meals.Your restaurant’s employee handbook should indicate whether a manager needs to approve a comped meal before the order is placed or after the dish has been served (in the event the comp is offered because the guest was unhappy with the dish). These permissions should also be reflected in your restaurant’s POS.

TouchBistro’s POS system lets you easily customize these security settings to reflect your restaurant’s policy, so you can control and monitor how many dishes and meals are being comped. If you are concerned that allowing servers to offer comps will hurt profits, consider monitoring theft before deciding.

Cover of TouchBistro's employee handbook with girl holding an iPad on the cover
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When Should a Restaurant Comp a Meal?

There are a number of factors to consider when deciding whether to comp a meal. If you’re comping a dish or a meal because a guest is unhappy, consider the reaction of the guest and the severity of what happened. 

Here are some examples of when you’ll want to comp an individual item or meal:

  • Poor service – If your server was rude or dismissive to a guest, and the guest has complained, a comp may be in order. While training your service staff should help eliminate this possibility, it can happen and should be addressed immediately.
  • Long delays – Sometimes food is slow coming out of the kitchen. But in the event of an unusually long delay, such as waiting a half-hour for drinks, it’s smart to consider comping.
  • Finding a hair, insect, or other foreign item in the food – This kind of error requires immediate action. Have the kitchen remake the dish, take the dish off the bill, and let the guest know you’ve done so.
  • A significant kitchen mistake – Did the guest request a special order that wasn’t accommodated? Or was the food prepared in a way that makes it inedible? Have the kitchen remake the dish and consider comping it.
  • One of your best regulars – Regular diners do more than frequently eat at your restaurant. They may also be informal brand ambassadors for you, helping refer other guests through word of mouth marketing. On occasion, you may want to comp a drink or food item, such as an appetizer, as a way of thanking them for their patronage.
  • A special occasion – Is a family celebrating a birthday, graduation, or other significant event? Comping a dessert or drink can make a great impression on your guests.

Not every mistake or misstep warrants a comp, however. Consider these situations when a comp may not be your best go-to:

  • The “do-you-know-who-I-am” guest – You’ll likely get guests who expect freebies simply because of who they are, whether the person is a local politician or business bigwig. Consider the consequences of comping and whether it’s likely to pay off with more business. Also keep in mind that if you comp the person once, they will likely expect it in the future.
  • A guest is rude, out of line, or threatening – Some people simply don’t have manners, and you’re bound to come across them at some point. If a guest is rude or nasty, comping the meal may not make much of a difference about whether they return. And do you even want that guest back? Nope. Obviously, if a patron becomes abusive or violent, you should immediately attempt to defuse the situation and ask the person to leave, without offering a comp.
  • The guest is extremely difficult to please – If you have a guest who isn’t happy with a dish, but refuses to try something else (or doesn’t like the replacement any better), they might just be picky – or impossible to please no matter what you do. You and your server can commiserate over the whole experience without comping them.
  • The guest’s expectations are unreasonable – Sometimes diners will complain in an effort to get a comp meal. If a guest has a minor issue with the meal or the service, and immediately asks for a full comp, consider other ways to address the issue (see below).

As you can see, not every unhappy guest should be offered a comp. There are other ways to handle these issues, including offering a gift card or a discount on a future meal. Providing a future discount may make the guest more likely to return to your restaurant than if you comp today’s meal, giving you another opportunity to gain a happy, satisfied diner.

To Comp or Not to Comp – That Is the Question

The idea behind comping is relatively simple. It’s to transform an unhappy guest into a happy one, or to make an already happy guest even happier!

A server brings a couple a special comped milkshake

However, in an ideal world, you won’t need to offer many comps to address service or food complaints. How can you accomplish this? By ensuring better quality service from your team and regularly checking in with guests while they’re at your restaurant. 

That means instructing your servers and/or managers to touch base with your guests throughout their dining experience. This may include after drinks or appetizers are served, not only after the main course is served. Your servers may be in the habit of checking in at that point – but too often this happens before guests have had a chance to try their food. 

Train your servers to ask if guests are happy after they’ve eaten some of the meal, and address any complaints or concerns then. Something as simple as adding a forgotten “extra” to a main dish or reheating a dish to a guest’s temperature preference may be all it takes to satisfy the person. But when you miss that opportunity, even a small issue may morph into a more significant one. 

An unhappy guest typically is looking to be heard and understood, first off. A server or manager who listens, apologizes, and makes it clear that they’re willing to address mistakes is the first line of defense in keeping comps low. Keep the lines of communication open and try to establish rapport with the guest while you determine how to respond. 

Taking the next step of comping a dish (or less frequently, a meal) can appease a guest and make it more likely they’ll return. But just as important is the manager’s attitude and demeanor during that conversation. 

Keep in mind, however, that if a guest is unhappy enough with the food or service, the guest is likely to complain – and complain to more than one person. Online reviews can have a tremendous impact on your restaurant’s success, and the best time to address guest’s concerns is when they occur, face to face, not through an online portal. 

Server looks uncomfortable between two angry customers, might have to comp a meal

If you do happen to get a negative online review, be sure to take the time to respond to it. Express your appreciation for the review, apologize, and ask the guest to give you an opportunity to do better next time. Your proactive response may encourage that guest to return, while also making a positive impression on future readers of the review. 

Often, more focus is placed on comping as a way of pacifying a dissatisfied guest. But don’t overlook the impact of a positive, or thank you comp.

Whether you choose to comp a regular’s dessert or send a round of free appetizers to a group of coworkers who frequent your restaurant, you are creating loyal guests. And they’re not only likely to return but also to spread the word about your restaurant. That’s an investment in good will that can be hard to quantify.

The Last Word On Comped Meals

So, when it comes to comping, should you or shouldn’t you?

The short answer: It depends.

Having a policy that clearly delineates your stance on comping, including discounting food for friends and family, is critical. Training your managers (and servers, if they are given the authority to do so) about when and how to comp also is important. However, don’t forget that focusing on service and continual communication with your guests is likely to decrease the number of guest complaints. 

It’s important to keep in mind that comping is only a gesture. It represents the attitude your restaurant should embrace when it comes to service and satisfaction – that you truly care about your guests and their dining experience. When your staff communicates this message and your guests believe it, they’re likely to be happier overall, regardless of the comps you offer.

Photo of Dana Krook
by Dana Krook

Dana is the former Content Marketing Manager at TouchBistro, sharing tips for and stories of restaurateurs turning their passion into success. She loves homemade hot sauce, deep fried pickles and finding excuses to consume real maple syrup.

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