How Free Restaurant Bread Tricks Your Brain

Restaurants put a lot of thought into the whole dining experience — the lighting, the menu design, table layout, service philosophy, and yes, that free bread. There are so many different theories as to how that basket of bread affects your choices for the rest of the meal. Some restaurants are even known for their free bread offerings – Cheesecake Factory brown bread anyone? Every restaurant has its own reasoning for offering or withholding free bread and while it's hard to prove if some of these theories are actually scientifically true, they do seem to make a lot of sense.

In a business with a notoriously low profit margin, restaurant goers enter into an unspoken contract when they dine out, understanding that the restaurant is indeed trying to make a buck. Free bread may help that cause, and really, it isn't exactly free. Restaurants typically account for the cost of that bread by folding it into the menu prices, though losing money due to waste is a risk. What customer doesn't like free stuff, even if it is just the illusion of a bargain?

How might free bread trick your brain?

Dropping a tempting platter of warm and aromatic bread on the table right after you have been seated can encourage the purchase of one more drink than you originally planned on. You are grazing on something salty, and a beverage besides water starts to sound pretty good. That's great for the restaurant because drinks are marked up significantly; they can expect to earn as much as an 80% profit.

Offering free bread might be a way to get customers to order as much as possible, which might be a little shaky since it is totally possible to fill up on bread and ruin your enjoyment of the rest of the meal. However, starting with a simple carbohydrate like white bread can cause your blood sugar to spike and then quickly fall off. This can cause you to feel full for a short time, but that sensation only lasts for about an hour or so, just in time for you to feel hungry again by dessert.

Perhaps the most compelling reason that restaurants offer free bread is that it simply makes the guest feel good. When customers feel like the restaurant is being generous, they might be more likely to reciprocate that generosity with a high-dollar tip.

The history of free bread

The practice of including free bread with a restaurant meal likely started in old school taverns where diners were encouraged to fill up on bread so that the restaurant didn't have to buy as much expensive meat for the main courses.The practice stuck, and the tradition of serving free bread at the start of a meal became ingrained in American restaurant culture.

Because of this tradition, bread on the house could also just be plain old good hospitality. It is a way to start the dining experience out on the right foot. People arrive to a restaurant hungry, and they get to start enjoying the experience right away. Free bread also has the added benefit of keeping guests from growing impatient as they wait for their order to be taken and food to arrive. The most time-intensive part of the dining experience for a server is right after a guest sits down — taking orders, confirming dietary considerations, relaying questions to the kitchen, adhering to special requests, and pouring glasses of wine. A little bread on the table greases the wheels and helps the server keep things running smoothly.

Whatever the reason the bread arrives at the table, who's going to complain? Free bread seems like it's a win-win for both customers and restaurants.