Earlier this week, one of Olive Garden’s primary investors came out against the chain’s practice of handing out unlimited free breadsticks. This is nonsense. One of restaurants’ primary purposes is to provide hospitality, and allowing anyone who wants free bread unlimited access to it is the very definition of hospitality.
As the New York Times’ Pete Wells noted back in March, “…not very long ago, when we sat down in a restaurant, waiters would … set a basket of rolls or sliced baguettes on the table. We didn’t have to ask for it or pay for it. Bread simply ... appeared.” Sadly, this tradition is dying out, and it needs to be saved.
Restaurant owners certainly have logical reasons to stop putting free bread baskets on every table. It cuts into their bottom line, obviously, especially if they source their bread from a quality bakery. It also leads to waste if the basket goes untouched, and should the ravenous diner decide to polish off the basket before their meal arrives it might spoil their appetite (and make them less likely to order dessert).
But none of these reasons is compelling enough to make us want to do away with free bread. When we show up to a restaurant starving, the promise of putting some food in our bellies within minutes of sitting down, while still perusing the menu, is a comforting one. The bread basket is also an indicator of overall restaurant quality, and of what we can expect from the meal to come. Stale microwaved bread lets us know not to expect much; fresh, warm mini baguettes let us know that we’re in good hands.
There’s an easy solution to this crisis: restaurants can stop automatically putting bread down on tables, and only give it to those who want it. When servers introduce themselves and ask for the table’s water preference, they can also ask if they should bring some bread.
As for those restaurants that just charge for bread instead? Well that better be some damn good bread.