Yes, part of it is to make money, but there are other factors you might not have considered.

By Andrea Beck
Updated March 13, 2019

Restaurant portions can sometimes be too large for one person on their own, so if you’re eating out with someone who’s planning to order the same dish from the menu, it can be easier to just order one entrée and split it. However, it usually doesn’t end up being a great way to save money on food as a lot of restaurants will add on an extra fee to split a plate. And while it might be a little frustrating to see an extra $2 to $5 charge on your bill if you were hoping to save, restaurants have a good reason for adding on those extra few dollars.

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As you might expect, plating fees are usually a way to help cover the restaurant’s costs. And even though the cost of the ingredients is the same for splitting one entrée into two, there’s a lot more that goes on behind the scenes.

“The restaurant industry is an expensive business to run with very tight margins,” says Michelle Flores-Gonzales, vice president and director of operations at Flores Financial, which provides financial consulting to restaurants. “Two of the largest cost centers are food and labor. These two cost centers alone average 60% of a restauranteur’s expenses,” she says. That means that for every one dollar the restaurant makes, about 60 cents is spent on ingredients and paying the staff to cook and serve the food.

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Usually, at least another 30% of a restaurant’s budget goes into other necessities, like rent, utilities, furniture, dishes, and other supplies. That leaves just 10% or less for profit, and that’s only if the restaurant owner is efficient, and business isn’t affected by other setbacks like equipment repairs. “Every penny counts, literally,” says Flores-Gonzales. Because the margins are so small, restaurants carefully price their menus so they can meet their budgetary needs.

“Splitting an entrée means the guest average per ticket goes down and venues do not make their margins on that table as expected,” Flores-Gonzales says. “The split fee is one way to offset the labor of serving two guests who only pay for one full meal.”

After all, even if you only order one entrée, you’ll still have a waiter attending to your table, kitchen staff cooking and plating your meal, and you’ll be using twice the number of dishes and silverware, which the restaurant will have to wash. And usually, restaurants don’t just send out an extra plate with your entrée—oftentimes the staff will take the time to split it for you and create two equal plates, which takes more time than plating one dish.

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Still, not all restaurants charge plate fees. Karine Bakhoum, who has appeared as a judge on Iron Chef America and is the founder of Iron Palate Consulting, says that some high-end restaurants offer half-portions instead of plate fees. “Half portions are becoming more and more popular with today’s eating preferences,” she says. “People look for smaller portions, and smart restaurants who do not have a small plates or tapas-like menu offer half portions to accommodate and, yes, charge a bit more than half the price.”

By charging more than half price for half portions, restaurants can still make money by serving a smaller entrée. And sometimes, when smaller portions are offered, people will order and spend more. “In most cases, when menus tend to be more accommodating people will inevitably tend to order more items,” Bakhoum says. “People like to taste different dishes and the lack of restriction inclines them to order more, thus spend more.”

Still, money isn’t always the only factor in the decision to charge a plating fee or not. Bret Csencsitz, a managing partner at Gotham Bar and Grill in New York City, says that while a restaurant’s goal is obviously to make money, it’s also about providing a great experience to customers. “In contrast is the hospitality approach,” Csencsitz says. “In this perspective, the restaurant is not just inventory, it’s experiential, it’s about making people happy and building upon these moments of pleasure to develop a loyal and returning clientele.”

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In some cases, he says that means not charging a fee to split plates so guests can share food more easily (Gotham doesn’t charge plate fees), or creating a drink or dish that guests can’t experience anywhere else. “Yes, we are a business that seeks to generate a profit, but we seek it through creating and crafting moments for people to remember, and we do this by providing unique opportunities for our guests to enjoy something new, different, and incredibly good,” he says.

The restaurant business is tough, and since budgets are usually tight, plate fees are just one of the ways restaurants try to make up the extra cost of splitting entrees for customers. Still, you won’t find them everywhere, as some restaurants have started serving smaller portions, or are more focused on building up their reputation and creating a great experience for guests that will keep them coming back. Whether you encounter a plate fee or not the next time you eat out, remember to leave a nice tip for your server—splitting an entrée is usually more work for them too, not just the kitchen.


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