No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

Employee meal discounts provide the chance to create restaurant ambassadors

Most restaurants cook a daily comped meal for staff—but what about when they’re off the clock? 

Discounting meals for employees is a standard practice for many restaurants. No doubt, it’s a perk and breeds goodwill. 

For example, Red Lobster discounts meals for employees and up to seven guests, while Bertucci’s employees receive up to $100 worth of dine-in or take-out food each month.

But the discount should have an ulterior motive: the chance to create restaurant ambassadors among employees, their friends and family. 

“Our staff has to know the food, period,” says co-owner Michelle Baker, who opened The Refinery with her husband, Greg, in Tampa, Florida. “Our customers have a lot of questions. Feeding our staff from the menu allows them to answer questions quickly and accurately and make recommendations.”

"Feeding our staff from the menu allows them to answer questions quickly and accurately and make recommendations."

-Michelle Baker

The Bakers offer their staff of 33 a 20 percent discount when they dine on their days off. The Refinery’s menu can change as often as four times a week, depending on produce and meat availability from farmers, so dishes are also presented in the evening after a shift.

John Pani, partner in San Diego’s Waypoint Public gastropub, says total comps run a bit higher than he’d like, at 4.5 percent of revenue. But he says discounting meals by 25 percent for his nearly 40 employees is well worth the cost. 

“It’s part of our sales and marketing budget,” Pani says. “It’s something you have to offer because employees measure that when they consider where to work. They also see the floor from a different perspective (when they eat at the restaurant off the clock)—where the hang-ups are—and they can learn from it.”

Pani applies the discount to the table, not just what the employee orders. “Our staff is young, social and very much a part of the demographic that we are attracting,” he says, adding that word of mouth from the guests of employees is invaluable.

Owners, however, need to measure the costs and benefits to ensure that employee comps work for a restaurant’s specific size and schedule. 

When Laura van Heijningen and her husband, Tom, opened 43-seat Blue Jacket bar and restaurant in Milwaukee in 2012 they began with a handful of employees. Within two years, staff grew to 25 to accommodate a busier seven-days-a-week dinner service and weekend brunch. As staff grew, van Heijningen implemented an across-the-board discount of 50 percent for employees and their friends. 

Last year, Blue Jacket eliminated brunch and reduced dinner service to five nights a week to return to the intimate, prep-intensive restaurant that they originally imagined. Now, with a staff of 11 full-time employees, Blue Jacket doesn’t see a need for employee discounting, which has saved money. Staff experiences new dishes during pre-shift meetings.

“Now we all work Tuesday through Saturday. On Sunday and Monday, we’re closed and we all have our lives,” van Heijningen says. “When we had almost 30 employees, our comps would be running up to 6 percent. If you’re grossing $60,000 to $75,000 a month, you’ve got $4,500 out the door for comps.”

No matter the formula, discounting meals for workers emphasizes a staff-first ethos. 

“For front of house, obviously, it helps them when customers have questions and the menu changes so quickly,” says Baker. “For back of house, they’re the ones who are making it, and they should be able to eat that food as well. Who cares if it’s a really expensive cut of steak? We want our staff to be just as important as our customers.” 

Kate Bernot is a Phoenix-based food and beverage writer and associate editor at Draft magazine.