Do you deserve a free dessert on your birthday? Some chefs say no


It was a simple question.

When you are an adult and go to a restaurant for your birthday, do you expect a free dessert, and if yes, then why?

Dallas McGarity, chef/owner of the wildly popular The Fat Lamb and Portage House, posted the query on his Facebook recently and seemingly touched a nerve among Louisville diners.

Dozens and dozens of responses poured in, some with a resounding “yes,” but there were many more “no” replies from the diner side. Restaurateurs who weighed in offered responses ranging from the sentiment that it’s a nice way to show appreciation to saying “free dessert is for [the] entitled.”

While some consumers may note that cake or dessert can be a low-cost gesture of appreciation for someone’s special day, others responded that it’s an easy argument to make when it’s not your money.

That’s a fair point, and to be honest, I had never given the subject any thought — and in fact have almost certainly been guilty of telling restaurant servers that a member of my party was celebrating some occasion or another, because that notion of getting something free on a special day is so ingrained in the dining public.

But comments from McGarity and others made clear that asking for a free dessert is the very same premise I get so worked up about when people ask for discounts on the full-time Airbnb I run out of the third floor of my home in bustling Old Louisville.

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With the practice still common in a number of local restaurants, I wondered what had prompted the post — and the subsequent heated discussion— so I reached out to McGarity and some other local restaurateurs.

McGarity said he was just looking for feedback.

“I think it’s antiquated and there are tons of people that don’t even eat dessert. Also, does it really bring someone back in if they get a dessert on the house, or is there a better way to get return guests?” he asked. “I got a ton of feedback … and most of the people don’t expect it but think it’s nice. I feel there are other ways to make the experience special and that would certainly be more memorable. A free dessert is kind of old-school and chain restaurant.”

What’s more, there’s the issue of dietary restrictions, McGarity noted in the online discussion.

“It’s presumptuous to send them something they didn’t order because of food allergies,” he commented.

Several diners agreed on that count. And having had (very generous but) sometimes unwanted desserts land on my own table that I’ve felt obligated to eat, I can understand this birthday backlash.

So what would McGarity rather see restaurants do when recognizing a guest’s special occasion?

“Something quietly classy as opposed to singing tableside,” he said. Maybe a personalized card offering a free dessert or an appetizer on the next visit, or “a handwritten note from the staff or manager would be a good touch.”

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Rick Moir of Olé Hospitality Group — the powerhouse behind fan favorites such as El Taco Luchador, Mussel & Burger Bar, Mercato Italian Trattoria & Market and more — agreed.

“Almost everyone does free desserts and it doesn’t seem that special anymore,” he told the Courier Journal. “The recognition by owner, chef and staff is what we always thought was nice and what guests really seemed to enjoy.”

Moir adds that “We want our guest to know we appreciate them choosing us to be part of their special occasion. Especially when we would find out birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations via Google, Facebook or other public outlets without the guest telling us — the surprise was always fun for the guest and staff.”

Diners should count Larry Rice of The Silver Dollar firmly in the birthday goodie camp. While the Frankfort Avenue restaurant doesn’t have a policy of sending out free desserts, he commented, “if we find out someone is celebrating, we always send something out. Not because they were born or didn’t get divorced, but because they decided to celebrate at our joint. It’s pretty cool when folks think of your place on big days.”

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But back to that original comment about the financial impact: 

“Of course giving anything away comes with some kind of financial cost,” Rice said. “But I think in the hospitality business if every decision you make has the bottom line attached, you’ve lost the concept of hospitality altogether.”

Tell Dana! Send your restaurant “Dish” to Dana McMahan at thecjdish@gmail.com and follow @danamac on Twitter.

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