What do just about all restaurants have in common? Tables, chairs, cooks in the kitchen, servers, and menus all make a whole lot of sense… without those, the place wouldn’t really be able to call itself a restaurant. But what about the bread? Even though some restaurants have started charging for it, just about every sit-down restaurant will bring you bread at some point between sitting down and getting your food. But have you ever stopped to think why? Isn’t the point of a restaurant to get you to spend money on food, not to fill you up for free before your meal even arrives?
This question was recently posed to Quora, and commenters posited lots of different theories. We’ll lay them out as simply as possible:
One, it’s a sign of hospitality. When you welcome people into your home or establishment to “break bread,” you’re showing them that they’re welcome.
Two, there’s a historical precedent. Tavern owners historically served one meal per day, at a set time and for a set price, so filling diners up on bread before the main course of meat, fish, or other more expensive foods helped keep expenses down.
Three, it’s a way to give diners something to do before their food arrives. When we sit down at a restaurant table we tend to be hungry, but it can take some time before the food arrives. Instead of letting customers sit around with nothing to eat, starving and watching other tables enjoy their food, giving them a little bread and butter to tide them over keeps them happy and prevents them from becoming impatient.
Four, it inspires subconscious reciprocity. If a generous and warm bread basket is placed on a table before the diner has a chance to order, he or she will subconsciously want to return the favor: “They were generous with their bread, so now I’ll be generous with them.” It puts customers in a generous frame of mind.
Five, bread actually makes you hungrier. Simple carbohydrates trigger insulin production, which makes you hungrier than you were before, and you most likely won’t feel any fullness from the bread until after you’re done ordering.
So there you have it: There are plenty of reasons for serving bread before a restaurant meal. Oh, and don’t assume that it’s free; the price of the bread is usually worked into the rest of the menu items.