Working in food service is no easy feat. From entitled customers and their irrational preferences to horrible bosses conjuring up problems when there are none, restaurant and bar workers have seen it all. It’s just a part of the job. But while we, the customers, don’t really get to see what happens on the other side of the curtain, navigating the twists and turns of the industry leads staff to naturally pick up a few dirty secrets establishments hope to keep shut.
This stands at the center of an illuminating thread on Quora: “What’s the shadiest cost-saving tactic you’ve seen in a restaurant or bar?” The question immediately inspired servers, cooks, and other professionals to expose the nastiest management techniques they’ve ever witnessed at work, and their responses did not disappoint.
Reheated Frankenstein pizzas and bulk liquor poured into premium bottles are just a few ways businesses cut corners, according to the people who know what they’re saying. We at KristenBellTattoos.com have gathered some of the most surprising responses to share with you all. So continue scrolling, but be warned: reading them may cause an uncontrollable urge to be wary the next time you dine out. Hit upvote as you go, and be sure to share your own tales with us in the comments!
Psst! After reading these stories, check out our earlier article featuring restaurant workers spilling industry secrets right here.
There’s a weird thing they do at certain restaurants where you can order pizza by the slice. When someone orders a whole pizza, they’ll take an older pizza (with some slices sold from it) that’s getting close to its hold time, fill the missing slices in from the new pizza, and serve the Frankenstein pizza to the customer. Then they have a bunch of brand new slices to sell instead of having to throw out the expired slices.
The shadiest thing I’ve seen is the bartenders taking left over customers drinks off tables and mistakes and pouring them all into a pitcher all day long then serving a dollar drink in a paper cup they called “ all nations” to the drunks that hung around behind the bar like alley cats.
There are two extremely shady things that I’ve seen restaurants do to save money that top my list.
Years ago, I was working banquets as a part time gig for a hotel to help them get through a busy few weeks. One night, we served a large wedding, and at the end, about 30% of the food was left over. Instead of offering it to staff and throwing the rest of it away, it was saved for later use. I know a lot more about food safety now than I did back then, but even back then I knew that this was wrong. Trays of food that had been sitting out for hours, and not held hot, need to be thrown away.
The most shady thing I’ve witnessed occurred long ago. I worked in a bar and restaurant, and perhaps their most important employee was their do-it-all dishwasher. I will call him Albert. Albert was an extremely diligent man of about 50, and he also happened to be mentally challenged. The owners took advantage of his hard work and unfortunately, also took advantage of the fact that had a low IQ. They made him do every job that no one wanted to do, and quite frankly, the place would have come to a screeching halt if he decided to not show up for work one day. He worked 80 hours a week at minimum wage and did not get paid overtime. They paid him in cash for his overtime hours, but that still works out to considerably less in that particular tax jurisdiction. When the minimum wage would go up, they would tell him he is getting a raise. This is easily the most blatant abuse of a worker that I have ever seen. He was the kindest, hardest working man I’ve known in the industry. At least the rest of the staff treated him with respect and kindness.
There are a number of things that less-than-scrupulous owners do to increase their margins. I’ve seen operators pour bulk liquor into premium bottles hoping guests won’t notice. Cocktail bars can print one brand on the menu and then pour another one because they ran out of the more expensive one. The shadiest thing that I’ve encountered though was an owner that tried to hire all of his staff as independent contractors so he wasn’t liable for paying payroll tax or required insurance. Treating the human capital poorly is the shadiest tactic an owner could do to cut costs.
It was back in the 1970’s. I was a young cook in a restaurant in LaCrosse Wisconsin. Most restaurants would run a Friday night all you can eat special which was always fried fish, usually beer battered, Cole slaw and fries. Yep, YOU KNOW WHERE THIS IS GOING.. An extra dishwasher was scheduled that night to search the returning plates for untouched fish and fries. These would be refried and served again. The owner’s explanation was that the refrying killed all “GERMS”. Needless to say I rapidly found another job before someone got sick and the kitchen was blamed.
Back in the late 70’s I had a close friend who worked at a swanky restaurant in Calabasas, CA. One of the jobs she had was to remove the unused “garnish” from plates returning to the kitchen, to be used on new plates going out to customers. I was incredulous and had to see for myself, so I stopped by one night. Sure enough, she was the first person in “scrape” (kitchen slang for the area where used plates were brought to be scraped of major food debris before loading into the dishwasher), and would take parsley off and put it in a pile to the side, then scrape off the little pile of peas and carrots into a bin. Eventually, someone would come by and grab the parsley, peas & carrots, and take them to where new dishes were being assembled and the garnish would be used again. Gross!!! Who know what happens to that food while it’s out there, or how many times it was re-used? Now, when I eat at a restaurant that has garnish on the plate, I carefully shove it to the side so it won’t touch the rest of my food.
In my teen years I worked at a Sonic Drive In. When it got slow, the manager would make us carhops dig through the trash (no gloves) and pull out unused ketchup, mustard, etc packets and put them back in the bin on the shelf. I did that once and then quit and never went back!
My cousin work at the same Sonic and she said they used to make her wipe the green slime off of the hot dog wieners and then throw them on the grill. Barf!!
I was a 16-year-old waitress in a deli and my cheap boss would make me re-use the soda cups unless they had obvious lipstick marks on them. I lost all respect for him and soon quit.
Many years ago I tended bar for a guy that was the ultimate of cheap. He would go to restaurants and pick up the raw chicken they were throwing away, take it in the bar’s kitchen and bleach it in strong Clorox solution until it was Snow White, cover it in really hot sauce, salt it like crazy and cook it up for h’orderves. Everyone ate it. I don’t know how many people got sick from it but they kept coming back for more.
I have never worked in a restaurant but I cook a lot and find it interesting to take a scientific approach to cooking. I therefore know that one common method of tenderizing sliced meat is to add baking soda. The baking soda breaks down protein and leaves the meat very tender, with a slightly spongy texture. It only works on the muscle tissue however, and still leaves any stringy connective tissue just as tough and stringy as before. It also adds a slight alkaline flavor, which can usually be covered up with a marinade or seasoning. Having figured this out, I can instantly spot when restaurants use this trick. The biggest giveaway is the presence of tough connective tissue within otherwise very tender meat. And it bothers me quite a bit when an establishment advertises a dish to contain “flank steak” or “rib eye” when it’s just a cheap cut tenderized with baking soda. There’s nothing wrong with using baking soda for this purpose (actually aids digestion), but I still like truth in advertising! This trick is used mainly in Chinese stir-fry, and is quite prevalent, from what I’ve experienced.
Let’s hop in the Tardis, and travel back to Korea, circa 1982.
I was in the Army, Military Police, and, of course, every Camp had a few bars, which were set up for servicemen. When I was at Camp Long, there was one such club which I frequented. The beer and wine they served there was absolutely awful. After a few weeks, I learned one of the reasons it was so awful.
Since I treated the ladies there with basic human dignity, (which was rare, in these types of bars), they let me play at being a DJ, some nights. The DJ booth was behind the bar, and folks wanting a particular song played would send me a bottle of beer, with a note. For a young Army private, it was a cheap way to get drunk.
So, where does the shady cost savings enter the picture?
I wasn’t exactly observant, back then, but eventually I noticed there were usually a few open beer bottles, behind the bar. This finally sunk in, stirring my curiosity, so I kept one eye out. One of the ladies had just cleared a table, and one of the beer bottles was not empty. She poured the remains into one of the bottles behind the bar, capped it with a manual capping thingy, and put it in the cooler, to sell to someone else.
Watered down liquor.
Bread or food that appeared to be salvaged from another diner or diners who didn’t eat it or touch it.
I never worked in a restaurant or bar but these were observations of things someone told me sometime or that I might have read even that rather freaked me out. Not the end of the world but not appetizing.
Good time enders.
I went with friends to a local chain Mexican restaurant in Northern Virginia for dessert.
As it was close to closing time the staff were cleaning up for the night. They were emptying the bowls of tortillas and the salsa from the tables back in the packets/jars. My friends questioned the staff about the hygiene and the manager denied they were doing anything wrong. Needless to say we left and my friends have never been back
My first bartending gig was in a very popular night club ran by a family not necessarily known for being the most legit business folks in town. They only had a small handful of employees on the books and most of us were paid under the table at the end of each shift.
The business always changed hands and names whenever they were sued by former employees or got hit with huge fines. We’d show up for work and often the doors were locked with “Out of Business” signs and then called back in a few weeks later to work but the name of the place was different and no one had any idea who the actual owner was anymore.
One particularly busy night, I happened to see a manager filling up Patrón bottles with a bottom shelf tequila. He was a close enough friend that I felt comfortable asking wtf. He admitted most of our high-end liquors were actually just sh*t booze poured into better brand bottles. I was not only shocked by the deception (and knowing what we charged for “Patrón” considering!) but also that I’d never had a single customer mention any kind of doubt when ordering Patrón or Grey Goose or whatever. In fact, we often had a large percentage of Mexican customers who scoffed when ordering tequila shots and were asked “well or do you have a preference?” They’d reply things like “I only drink Patrón, none of that other sh*t!” And while I was mortified to be part of this huge scam going on behind the bar, I was more intrigued by not a single person noticing the $12 shots they were ordering in quick succession were actually just “that other sh*t”.
I’ve since worked for other owners guilty of this same cost-saving tactic and suspect it’s a more common practice than we realize. I’ve also seen more expensive bottles of liquor get watered down. I almost always stick with well drinks these days when I’m out on the town and when I’m the one pouring on the other side, charge well prices for any bottles I’ve opened and think the cap came loose a little too easy.
A local popular chinese restaurant advertise all you can eat sushi. People start with plates of food, eat 1/4–1/2 and then when the bill arrives they find out the restaurant is charging them for the uneaten food in an effort to minimize waste. So they quickly see their patronage decline to the point they changed the way the all-you-can-eat sushi was being given. A waiter would be assigned to a group of tables and you had to order what food you wanted, and they would get it for you, no more serve-yourself. Again, people would order food, not like it, and then waste it. So they’d get pissed-off again for being charged for the wasted food. And so their patronage dropped yet again. Finally, they stopped offering all-you-can-eat and went back to a traditional restaurant type of service, and stopped trying to charge customers for wasting food.
Eventually, they finally closed their doors to business. People stopped going and had had enough. Too bad really as their bento-box ordered food was great and they also made an amazing curried pork.
One of the biggest shadiest thing is washing meats that doesn’t smell good at all with vinegar and lemon juice and cooking it like nothing happen discussing. A lot of them use expire pasta or can product and the worse of them are the ones that use the food that the health department says is bad and hazardous Nd they even take it out of thrash and still use it. If we only knew what happens in the back of the house .
This is mostly not an answer… but I’m sharing it anyway.
A lifetime ago I was working in a bar, and doing stand-up comedy on the side.
One line I used to use was that the owner of the bar I worked in was so cheap that each new year, as the clock struck midnight he would go round each of the whiskey bottles with a sharpie. Changing the “15 year old scotch” to “16 year old scotch” and putting the price up.
For me, it’s some of the more rural areas of Belarus. I kid you not, in most street vendor places if you order a cup of coffee you get charged for the cup, the stir stick, the sugar (rather you asked for it or not) and the coffee. It’s quite comical really. The wife gets mad at me when I mess with the sellers and say, no I don’t need the cup thanks. The confused look on their face is priceless. Several times, to the missus embarrassment, I have actually had the waitress/waiter remove the charge for the sugar. The majority of the restaurants cut their napkins in half. The food is relatively cheap (at least for me, not as much for the locals) but the portions are small. I usually order two on some of the dishes I know won’t fill me up. I love Belarus, but man are some of the restaurants skimpy.
I’ve seen the workers at the chinese buffet dump the old left over food in with the fresh and stir it up good.
I just thought waste not want not.
Besides watering down booze or lying about premium labels, I think the worst atrocity is claiming local,organic, farm to table yada yada & getting all your products off a Syso truck.
I worked in the service industry for several years during my late teens & twenties, both in bars & restaurants. I’ve worked every position in the front of the house— hostess, busser, server, bartender, cocktail waitress, manager. I loved it. It’s fun, it’s loose, it’s fast-paced, it’s something different everyday… But there are a few instances that make me shake my head & laugh (or gasp) when either looking back on them now or sharing with friends who have never worked in the industry.
I’ll share a few “inside” experiences ——
1-— For 3+ years I worked at a bar in Louisiana, just outside of New Orleans. Drinking-culture in Louisiana is an extreme sport. We would have patrons come and drink & drink until they were barely able to stand.. or walk.. or talk.. or stay awake. Yet they would STILL want to order more drinks. Getting “cut off” isn’t really a thing in Louisiana. So instead, we would be instructed to just “NOT PUT ALCOHOL” in their drinks anymore. But still charge them, of course.
It was a win-win-win for the establishment. We make money → they never know the wiser → the soda water or coke or whatever sobers them up → we are less likely to get in trouble for over-serving since they’ll be less drunk when they leave. And surprisingly- I was never once called out for it. They really were so drunk that they had no clue. Maybe the “shadiest” thing would be serving guests until they were that intoxicated to begin with… but you tell me about your last trip to New Orleans.
2—- Working at that same bar in Louisiana:
I was a hot young girlie back then. Actually, just in my late teens (you only had to be 18+ to bartend in Louisiana at the time). And I had lots of hot young girlie friends. My bar manager used to pay to have my “girlfriends” come to visit me at the bar while I was working, even though most were not even old enough to legally drink. They would flirt with the bar patrons and encourage them to buy more drinks / shots / stay longer. At the end of the night, the girls’ drinks & food that were not already covered or purchased by bar patrons would be comped. Many of their “drinks” that were bought for them would not contain alcohol. My friends would be rewarded with gift certificates & free dinners for “livening up” the place.
3—- I worked for a fine dining restaurant, also in Louisiana, that served high-end French-Creole cuisine. This wasn’t just anyplace; it was a well-regarded & highly-rated establishment. Our menu featured several oyster dishes. The oyster dishes would always be served in the shells, but the shells were recycled / put through the washer & reused, and the oysters used were pre-shucked & canned. The restaurant was on the water and instead of having a paved lot, it had seashell gravel (this is a thing in Louisiana). Occasionally, on busy nights, we would run out of the recycled shells, & a cook would have to go out into the parking lot to find a suitable oyster shell from the seashell gravel to wash up & serve from. We also re-served leftover croutons that were put on tables, but not eaten. We served crisp “croutons” rather than bread, which was a huge cost-saver, because they could be recycled & took much longer to get stale. When they finally did turn stale, they would be used to make our bread pudding.
4—- At a restaurant in California: Labor laws in CA mandate that employees working more than 6 hours are required a 30 minute break. To accomodate this law, most restaurants staff an extra server for each shift to watch the tables of the other servers while they take their breaks. Because they don’t make tips, this server is usually paid a higher hourly wage to compensate. To get around having to pay that extra person, one restaurant that I worked for would have their employees break at the very end of their shift, after the restaurant or their section had closed. A break at the end of your shift is pretty pointless, because you are about to be off anyway. So after we had finished with work for the
Way back in the late 70’s my high school girlfriend worked at a movie theater in Studio City, CA. Each night at closing they would bag any leftover popcorn and put the hot dogs back into the fridge. The next day they would dump the popcorn back into the ‘Fresh Hot Popcorn!” machine and put the hot dogs back into that greasy display case.
The hot dog thing was gross enough, but recycling a few cents worth of popcorn is definitely the chintziest thing I’ve seen.
When I was in high school I worked as a “busboy” in a high end restaurant. If people knew what went on in the kitchen they would have been appalled. All I can say is I’m glad the place is long gone.
When diners came in, we were to take rolls from a large bin and place them in a toaster then deliver them to the table. That’s all well and good. But if any rolls came back uneaten, they were to go back in the bin. Yup. Gross, shady cost-saving tactic for you.
But, the owners also had two BIG dobermans they kept in the kitchen. If we brought back any plates that had meat or bones, we were to give them to the dogs. How would you like knowing that where your food was being prepared, two dogs were running around, slobering over someone’s leftovers?
Each night after we closed, the owners, a husband and wife, would sit down to a lobster or steak that had been made in that very kitchen. Apparently, they must’ve saved a lot by recycling those rolls!
Do I have a story for you. When I was in college I took a part time serving job at a restaurant near my parents. The guy who ran it was CHEAP. He would serve food that was past it’s due date regularly including dairy desserts, if it had visible mold he would throw it out, but only when it was visibly moldy!
This man would make me go through the lettuce for the salad bar by hand and pick out the wilted pieces instead of just using fresh lettuce, not only cheap, but super unsanitary. He would make me do the same thing with fruit, but if the fruit was moldy he would just store it in the walk in freezer to cut the bad parts off and use.
He couldn’t afford cleaners so he expected his servers to come in an hour before their shifts, clean the bathrooms and then PREP THE FOOD. Sometimes he would even make me clean the front porches by hand with a wash cloth and bleach (it was an Inn/Restaurant) prior to opening.
He even kept his compost in the walk in fridge, which in hindsight is the weirdest thing he did, who does that???
I won’t say where the place is though, he had to close and the place was bought by a new owner who has done an absolutely wonderful job!!!
UPDATE: Yesterday I drove by this place on my way to my parents and it is absolutely amazing there now, so clean they even gave me a tour of the facilities (including the kitchen!). It’s a far cry from what it once was and I cannot believe how awesome it looks now! The new owners really deserve a hand for how they turned it around!
I’ve never answered a question before, but I do have a shocking cost-saving story to share.
I worked in a handful of restaurants in my teens and twenties, and they’ve all done some stuff you wouldn’t want to hear about as a patron, but one place really takes the cake. It was a “fine dining” spot in Niagara Falls, Canada.
We once served either lobster or crab for dinner service, I can’t remember which. When we brought the dirty dishes back to the kitchen, the chef had us save the shells to make stock for soup the next day. Shells that had been on everyone’s plates – in their mouths. Eugh.
At the time I was young and was disgusted, but assumed this was some sort of common practice within restaurants. I now realize the chef was just cheap. Oh and morally repugnant.
Thinking back on it grosses me out entirely.
edit: doing a little digging into my profile I see I have answered two questions before! Baby brain. I’d totally forgotten.
My family and I have owned a local Italian restaurant for 30 years. I’ve had employees from most of the restaurants in town over the years and I try every new restaurant. Common shady things I’ve heard/seen are using pork instead of veal at other local restaurants (when veal is on the menu as $1 more than chicken something is wrong as it’s 6x more expensive), pouring house wine as premium wine, refilling premium liquor with well (I don’t have a bar/liquor, just beer and wine), the same cheaper beer on tap for multiple selections, using off brand coca-cola products as the real stuff on coke machines (you have to buy a special adapter), using cheese with modified food starch (potato) for pizza/dinners (all the pizza chains use this), using expired products, using butter blend or margarine instead of real butter which is 3x more expensive…
When I was in high school in the early 70’s, I worked as a car hop at a famous root beer brand franchise in Sikeston, Mo., which served its root beer and other drinks in heavy frosted mugs. The owner was astoundingly cheap, as was his son, who was a partner in the business.
When the mugs came back in, they were cleaned in a 3-bay sink by 1. Pouring out the drink and ice remnants in the first sink and upending the mug, twisting it over a bristled scrubber that was suctioned-cupped to the sink bottom. Then 2. doused in the next sink compartment, that had detergent mixed in, then 3. Doused in the next compartment, which was a rinse sink. Then placed in a rack to dry and get re-frosted. Per mug: about 3–4 seconds total.
That was fine, efficient and I’m sure sanitary. What wasn’t was that this owner made us dunk the returned plastic straws in the detergent and rinse and re-use them. This place is no longer in business and hasn’t been for many years. I haven’t lived in Missouri since 1972 but from what I understand, the owner and his wife eventually passed away and the word was that the son and his wife took a Class A motorhome out on a test drive and never came back. I don’t know if that rumor is true, so Jerry, my apologies if it isn’t…
There seems to be particular liquors that somewhat emulate the taste of more expensive brands that some places refill bottles with. Sauza Silver is pretty similar to Patron, Cutty Sark is pretty similar to Jameson, and over rocks it’s pretty hard to tell the difference. At least not so much that someone would start an argument with a server as it’s also kind of impossible to prove.
Of course there’s a lot of this at restaurants as well especially with intentionally mislabeled fish. Also, anyone selling Kobi beef anything or Truffle anything is likely to have zero percent of those actual ingredients unless it’s served as the whole ingredient and you pay a truly significant price.
Depends on location but watch out for the liquid cheese. Some managers will make the crew pour boiling water from the coffee maker into it when it’s almost out to “make more”
I used to work at Wendy’s and the “unsalted fries” were just old fries thrown back in the fryer for 30 seconds to “get the salt off”