It’s a familiar ritual: sit down at a restaurant, get bread, order and continue with your typical dining out experience. Except lately, restaurants are removing one part of that scenario: the free bread.
It has been a slow rise, starting with the occasional restaurant only offering bread upon request, leading up to this week when one of Olive Garden’s investors tried to nix the national Italian chain’s unlimited breadsticks.
“Endless salad and breadsticks are another contributor to food waste,” Starboard said in a report on how Olive Garden can improve.
The Italian mainstay fired back that is has no intention of heeding such advice, writing, “Olive Garden’s salad and breadsticks have been an icon of brand equity since 1982. It conveys Italian generosity ...”
The restaurant “will continue to serve breadsticks with each meal,” Olive Garden spokesman Justin Sikora also confirmed to ABC News.
So rest easy, your unlimited breadsticks are safe. But are your other bread baskets?
“It makes sense as more and more people are avoiding carbohydrates, because they’re on the Paleo diet or going gluten-free,” Bret Thorn, senior food editor at Nation’s Restaurant News, told ABC News. “So why should a restaurant spend money to give you something you’re not going to eat?”
Restaurants like Roberta’s in New York City, Barnyard in Los Angeles and Roost in Houston go one step further than not serving free bread; they charge for it.
“Some restaurants are really going out of their way to make really excellent bread or source really excellent bread,” Thorn said. “So you can get a really great basket of delicious bread, often not just with butter, but with lardo [pork] or some other awesome topping.”
Other restaurants, such as Fire & Oak in Montvale, New Jersey, only offer free bread to customers who request it.
“The menu that we designed has burgers and sandwiches on the dinner menu and the trend when we opened was in general a lot of people having burgers for dinner, so at the same time with wasting food and people going more green and all those things coming together, we decided to only make it available on request, and it’s stated on the menu,” owner Joshua Dorras told ABC News. “We didn’t know what the reaction would be when we first opened, but it’s always been fine.”
Dorras has owned several restaurants over the years, and estimates thousands of dollars wasted on untouched bread.
“It was always a shame even when we used to do it automatically. You just keep throwing bread away, and it always seemed sad to throw that food away,” he said. “I’m sure if you added it up over the year and counted every piece of bead that you threw away, it would be thousands of dollars. It’s kind of like garnishing a plate with something you’re going to throw away every time. What’s the point?”
The trend has gotten so large that New York Times food critic Pete Wells penned an entire opinion editorial on the topic. Spoiler alert: he’s not very happy about it.
“When restaurants withhold bread, they can make us feel like children who can’t be trusted or guests who have overstayed their welcome,” he wrote. “It’s one of those times when we can see the sharp teeth of profit hiding behind the smile of hospitality. Never mind that a slice or two of bread can smooth out the restless, angry edge of hunger; the restaurant industry has decided that giving us bread when we first sit down means a lower check total. We know that’s what they’re thinking, too, just as we know that when they charge for bread they’ve stopped seeing this simple civility as a way to make us happy and started seeing it as a line item.”
It’s a fine line that Thorn acknowledges can be tricky to toe.
“I think restaurants have to be careful when they’re doing it, because if customers feel they are being nickel and dimed, they’ll really resent that. They’ll take it out on the server when they decide how much to tip and they also aren’t going to come back to their restaurant,” he cautioned. “You need to do the math to see if the amount of money you make is worth alienating customers. And customers have to decide if they really want to eat the bread.”
Free bread may be a – albeit slowly – dying tradition, but at least you know you can always go to Olive Garden.