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Comped Meals: The Why, When, and How of Giving Them Out


Almost all restaurateurs know the delicate balance of maintaining profit margins while ensuring customer satisfaction. But when it comes to offering a comped meal, it’s a whole different story. When is the right moment to offer comped meals? How do you start? And what are the underlying reasons that make it worthwhile? 

Join us as we delve into the nuanced world of comped meals, exploring the motivations, the opportune moments, and the strategies to effectively serve up generosity without burning the bottom line.

What is a Comped Meal?

 When you comp a meal, you offer it freely to clients.

A comped meal, or complimentary meal, is when a restaurant or other food service establishment waives the cost of part of or even an entire meal for a customer. Comped meals can be a powerful tool for building customer loyalty and goodwill and can make all the difference whether a client stays loyal to the business.

When done correctly, they can show customers that the restaurant owner values their business and is committed to providing a positive dining experience, thus being able to create returning customers. 

What Businesses Should Offer a Comped Meal?

Any food business can offer comped meals.

Offering a comped (complimentary) meal is a gesture of goodwill, often used to rectify a service misstep or to enhance customer relations. Several types of businesses within the food and hospitality sector can utilize this strategy:

  • Restaurants: The most obvious candidates, restaurants can use comped meals to address service or food quality issues, celebrate special occasions, or introduce new menu items.
  • Cafés and Coffee Shops: While they may not offer full meals, they can offer complimentary free dessert, drinks, or other items to regular customers or in response to service hiccups.
  • Bars and Pubs: A free drink or appetizer can be a gesture of appreciation for regular patrons or an apology for a service delay.
  • Hotels: Guests experiencing issues with their rooms or other hotel services might be offered a complimentary meal in the hotel restaurant as compensation.
  • Catering Services: If there’s a mix-up or delay with an order, caterers might provide complimentary dishes or a discount on future services.
  • Airlines: While not traditional “meals,” airlines occasionally offer complimentary snacks or drink vouchers to passengers during extensive delays or service interruptions.

Why Should Restaurants Offer Complimentary Food?

 When you comp a meal, you can form strong bonds with clients.

Offering complimentary food, or “comping” meals, is a practice that has been employed by the restaurant industry for years. While it may seem counterintuitive to provide food for free in a business where profit margins can be thin, there are several compelling reasons why restaurants might choose to do so, including:

  • Customer Retention and Satisfaction: Mistakes happen. Whether it’s a delayed order, a mix-up in the kitchen, or an error on the bill, offering a complimentary item can quickly turn a potential negative experience into a positive one, ensuring that the customer returns.
  • Marketing: A satisfied customer is likely to share their positive experience with friends, family, and on your restaurant feedback system. This form of marketing can be invaluable, drawing new customers to the restaurant.
  • Building Loyalty: Offering complimentary items, especially to regular customers, can make them feel valued and appreciated, fostering loyalty. A loyal customer base provides a consistent revenue stream and can be more forgiving of occasional missteps.
  • Introducing New Menu Items: Providing complimentary samples of a new dish can be a strategic way to introduce customers to something they might not have ordered otherwise. Once they’ve tried and liked it, they might order it on future visits or recommend it to others.
  • Managing Customer Feedback: Offering complimentary items can be a way to garner feedback on new dishes or to test potential menu changes in a real-world setting before fully implementing them.
  • Enhancing Guest Experience: On special occasions, such as a guest’s birthday or anniversary, a small complimentary item can elevate their dining experience, making it memorable and increasing the chances of them choosing the restaurant for future celebrations.
  • Cultivating Relationships with Influencers: In the age of social media, influencers can significantly impact a restaurant’s reputation. Offering them a complimentary meal can encourage them to share their experience with their followers, potentially drawing a larger crowd.
  • Community Engagement: Complimentary meals or food samples at community events or festivals can create brand awareness and attract potential customers who might not have heard of or tried the restaurant before.

When Should Restaurants Offer Complimentary Food?

Offer a comped dinner to clients who are dissatisfied with your service.

Offering complimentary food is a strategic decision that should be approached with care. Restaurants need to ensure that such gestures reinforce positive experiences and don’t become expected entitlements. 

Upon serving clients their complimentary meal, make sure to send an apology via your restaurant’s email marketing system once they leave. Clients understand that you’re genuine with your apology and will be more willing to return to your business. Here are some scenarios when it’s apt for restaurants to consider offering complimentary food:

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  • Service Errors: If a diner’s order is prepared incorrectly, delayed significantly, or presented in a less-than-satisfactory manner, a comped item can act as an immediate remedy, ensuring the dissatisfied guest leaves with a slightly positive impression despite the error.
  • Celebratory Occasions: Recognizing and celebrating events like birthdays, anniversaries, or other milestones with a complimentary dessert or appetizer can leave a lasting impression on guests and encourage repeat visits.
  • First-time Visitors: As a warm welcome gesture, offering a signature dish or drink to first-time patrons can provide them with a taste of what the restaurant offers and entice them to return.
  • Regular and Loyal Customers: Occasionally gifting a complimentary item to frequent diners acknowledges their loyalty and encourages continued patronage.
  • Menu Promotion: When introducing a new dish or drink, providing complimentary samples can generate interest and feedback, guiding future menu decisions.
  • Apologizing for Past Mistakes: If a customer had an unfavorable experience during a prior visit, offering a complimentary item on their return can show the restaurant’s commitment to rectifying past mistakes and ensuring quality service.
  • Unexpected Delays: If the kitchen is backed up or there’s a sudden shortage of staff leading to prolonged wait times, a complimentary appetizer or drink can keep customers content and engaged.
  • Building Rapport with Influencers: If a restaurant identifies a guest as a significant influencer or reviewer in the food industry, they might offer a dish on the house in hopes of securing a favorable mention or review.
  • Random Acts of Generosity: Every once in a while, surprising a diner with a complimentary item, just because, can generate immense goodwill, ensuring they remember the gesture and potentially share their positive experience with others.

Pro Tip: Here are some ways to make a complimentary meal bring your business benefits:

  • Improved Loyalty: Got a VIP group of clients you just have to indulge in a free meal? Send them a restaurant sms marketing message, informing them about their comp meal and make sure to thank them for their patronage.
  • More Online Reviews: Thank customers for their reviews with a free meal on the house. Restaurant owners who do so see an average 15% increase in online reviews. 
  • A More Genuine Approach: Poor service, hair in a guest’s meal, rude service, unsatisfied guests, and an overall poor dining experience can happen. That’s why by offering complimentary food as part of your restaurant’s policy for dissatisfaction, a restaurant business not only comes off as genuinely sorry, but can also win back that regular customer.

When Should Restaurants not Comp a Meal

Comped food shouldn’t be offered to clients who are looking for freebies.

While comping a meal is a well-regarded strategy to appease dissatisfied customers and enhance guest relations, there are instances when it may not be appropriate or effective. To arm yourself against such situations, it is recommended to implement a restaurant’s comping policy.

Here are some situations when restaurants might reconsider offering a complimentary meal:

  • Repeat Offenders: If a guest frequently finds faults and expects free items during every visit and expects future discounts, it’s possible they’re taking advantage of the restaurant’s goodwill. Make a note of these offenders in your restaurant CRM.
  • Unrealistic Expectations: If a customer has expectations that aren’t aligned with the restaurant’s offerings (e.g., expecting five-star dining at a casual eatery), comping may not satisfy them.
  • Non-Issue and Small Complaints: Some guest’s complaints may arise from personal preferences rather than actual service or food quality issues. Comping when a guest ordered wrong or for something subjective like “I don’t like the flavor” can set a tricky precedent.
  • Intoxicated Customers: Offering free alcohol or food to someone showing signs of intoxication can lead to liabilities and is not recommended.
  • Verbal or Physical Abuse: If a customer is aggressive or abusive towards staff, it’s essential to prioritize the safety and well-being of employees. Offering complimentary items might inadvertently reward inappropriate behavior.
  • Mass Errors: If there’s a widespread issue, like a system failure causing delays for all customers, it might not be financially feasible to comp meals for everyone. Instead, consider smaller gestures like free desserts or discounts on the next visit.
  • Demanding Compliments: If a diner explicitly asks for free items without a valid reason, it might not be in the restaurant’s best interest to comply, as it can encourage such behavior in the future.
  • Outside the Restaurant’s Control: Issues like power outages, natural disasters, restaurant POS system not responding, or other unforeseen events can disrupt service. While it’s still essential to show empathy, comping might not always be the best solution.

How Should Restaurants Give out Complimentary Food?

Complimentary food should be given discreetly.

Executing the gesture of providing complimentary food requires tact, a genuine approach, and strategy to ensure it achieves its intended purpose and doesn’t inadvertently lead to any unintended misunderstandings or negative perceptions. Here’s how restaurants should go about offering complimentary items:

  • Discreetly and Respectfully: If a mistake has been made, address it without drawing excessive attention. The idea is to make the guest feel comfortable, not spotlighted or embarrassed.
  • Communication: Ensure all staff, from the front to the kitchen, are aware when a complimentary item is being offered and why. This helps avoid confusion and ensures seamless service.
  • Genuine Apology: If the complimentary item is offered due to a mistake or oversight, always accompany it with a sincere apology. Genuine remorse can go a long way in mending a service hiccup.
  • Strategic Choice: Instead of just any dish, offer one of the restaurant’s specialties or a new menu item. This not only showcases the best of what you have but also gives the guest a reason to return.
  • Personal Touch: If possible, have a manager or the owner present the complimentary item. This personal touch signifies the importance the establishment places on customer satisfaction.
  • Avoid Making It Routine: While it’s a great tool, avoid offering complimentary food too often, as it can set an unintended precedent and devalue the gesture. Plus, make sure you’re not in the red when it comes to your restaurant analytics data, so that you’re not at a significant loss when doing so.
  • Documentation: Keep a record of when and why complimentary items are given. This helps track recurring issues, customer preferences, and potential areas of improvement.

Pro Tip: Here are some of the best ways to drive customer loyalty with a complimentary meal:

  • Offer a comped meal to show the customer that the restaurant appreciates their business and is willing to go the extra mile to make them happy. This can create a sense of goodwill and loyalty towards the restaurant.
  • Consider comping a meal for a customer on their birthday or after they have dined at the restaurant a certain number of times. Those numbers can be tracked with restaurant rewards programs, allowing for quick and easy meal management.
  • A comped meal can be a way to apologize for a mistake or to make things right if the customer has had a negative experience. This can help to repair the relationship with the customer and make them more likely to give the restaurant another chance.

Key Takeaways

  • Offering complimentary meals can significantly enhance a guest’s overall dining experience, potentially turning a negative situation into a positive memory.
  • Comped meals are invaluable tools for immediate service recovery, addressing issues like order mistakes or excessive wait times, ensuring customers leave satisfied.
  • Regularly recognizing and rewarding loyal patrons with complimentary items fosters stronger bonds and encourages repeated visits.
  • Comped meals can introduce guests to new menu items, increasing the chances they’ll order them again on future visits.
  • Complimentary offerings, especially new dishes, can provide an opportunity for diners to offer feedback, guiding future menu decisions.
  • A well-timed comped meal can prevent negative reviews by addressing and rectifying issues before a guest leaves the establishment.
  • Having a senior staff member or owner personally offer a complimentary item adds a special touch, emphasizing the importance placed on individual guest satisfaction.
  • While beneficial, it’s crucial to use the comping strategy judiciously to avoid devaluing the gesture or straining profits.
  • Ensuring that the entire team, from front-of-house to the kitchen, is aware of when and why a complimentary item is being given is essential to maintain service fluidity and prevent confusion.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

A comped order is a food or beverage order that is given to a customer free of charge. This is typically done by a restaurant or other food service establishment, but can also be done by other businesses, such as hotels or casinos.

There are a variety of reasons why a business might comp an order. Some common reasons include:

  • To apologize for a mistake, such as serving the wrong dish or delivering food late or cold.
  • To reward a loyal customer.
  • To celebrate a special occasion, such as a birthday or anniversary.
  • To accommodate a dietary restriction that the business is unable to meet.
  • To attract new customers or generate publicity.

Comped orders can be a great way for businesses to show their customers that they appreciate their business and are committed to providing a positive experience. However, it is important to be mindful of how often you comp orders, as it can cut into your profits.

Complimentary food can also be used as a marketing strategy to attract new customers or to generate publicity. For example, a restaurant may offer complimentary appetizers to customers who dine during the week, or a hotel may give a complimentary dinner to customers who book a room for a certain number of nights.

Here are some examples of complimentary food:

  • Appetizers
  • Bread and butter
  • Dessert
  • Drinks (coffee, tea, water)
  • Snacks
  • Soup or salad

Complimentary food can be a great way for businesses to show their customers that they appreciate their business and are committed to providing a positive experience. However, it is important to be mindful of how often you give away complimentary food, as it can cut into your profits.

It is customary to tip 15-20% on a comped meal, just as you would on a regular meal. This is because the server is still providing you with service, even though you are not paying for the food.

However, some people may choose to tip more or less on a comped meal, depending on the circumstances. For example, if the restaurant has comped a meal because of a mistake they made, you may choose to tip less. Or, if the restaurant is comping your meal as a special gesture, you may choose to tip more.

Ultimately, the amount you tip on a comped meal is up to you. However, it is important to remember that the server is still providing you with a service, and they should be compensated accordingly.
Juliusz Dzierlatka

Juliusz Dzierlatka

Digital content creator with +7 years experience in marketing, helping restaurants streamline daily operations.

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