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The great wine robbery

Do not waste your time asking waiters, managers or firangi drop-outs masquerading as sommeliers to recommend a wine. They either want to meet their sales targets or are trying to push wines that nobody is ordering.

india Updated: May 21, 2011 19:15 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

Do not waste your time asking waiters, managers or firangi drop-outs masquerading as sommeliers to recommend a wine. They either want to meet their sales targets or are trying to push wines that nobody is ordering.

Up-selling’ is considered a perfectly legitimate technique in marketing. What it means is this: you go to a car showroom intending to spend, say, Rs 8 lakhs on a car. The salesperson shows you a model that is more expensive but is so much better than the one you originally had your eye on. You are so tempted by the superior quality of the more expensive model that, with a persuasive assist from the salesperson, you spend a couple of lakhs more than you had originally intended.

The salesperson will be congratulated by his peers for having persuaded you to part with more money than planned and will be lauded for his or her ‘up-selling’ skills.

In the restaurant business, however, up-selling takes on a nastier dimension. Each month, the UK press is full of stories about restaurant rip-offs. In one celebrated case, a couple went to the restaurant Petrus (then at the Berkeley Hotel) and ordered a reasonable bottle of red wine. The sommelier then suggested that they should try something that was far superior without mentioning that it was also several times the price of the wine they wanted to order.

When the bill came, the couple realised that they had been charged several hundred pounds for the bottle. Being British, they paid it without complaining but later went home and wrote to a restaurant website about the experience. The story was picked up by the national press and the restaurant came in for enormous criticism.

wineOther up-selling scams in the restaurant business involve so-called ‘daily specials’. While the menu contains the prices of all the regular items, the specials are announced without prices being mentioned. For instance, the waiter will say, "In addition to the regular menu, today we have a special of Scottish lamb which has been roasted till it is pink and melting in the centre. Our chef says that this is the best lamb he has ever cooked. We only have a small quantity but there are still some portions left if you want it."

Most of us would consider it gauche to then ask, "That’s all very well, mate, but how much is this going to set me back?" So we order the lamb anyhow and then discover when the bill comes that it is double the price of every other main course on the menu.

In India, we have no tradition of reporting restaurant rip offs but we have just as much up-selling as they have in the West. The difference is that if you have been ripped off by a restaurant in India, there is nobody you can complain to. I’ve been ripped off on wine orders myself so I know what the feeling is like. In at least one case, the manager knew that I was a food writer and still had no hesitation in ripping me off – consider what he must have done to punters with no access to the media.

It happened a few years ago at a stand-alone restaurant by the sea in Bombay. (I’m not sure the restaurant exists any longer but it was considered extremely trendy at the time.) I ordered a California Pinot Noir, which cost around Rs 3,000 a bottle. The manager arrived with a bottle of red Burgundy instead. “It’s a much better Pinot Noir and I am going to serve that,” he declared. I was with guests so could not say something like, “Take the bottle back, you rip-off merchant. I know it is four times the price.” So we drank the wine and when the bill came, the bottle cost twice as much as the food bill for the entire table. I swore never to go back to the restaurant but as it appears to have closed down, this was a meaningless vow.

Ripping me off is a slightly high-risk strategy for any restaurant. Usually, they tend to focus on people who can’t complain, are easily embarrassed or don’t know much about wine. Shockingly, even otherwise excellent restaurants pull this scam.

Two weeks ago, a group of four young people of my acquaintance went to a restaurant run by a national hotel chain in south Bombay. They ordered four glasses of red wine. “If there are four of you,” said the waiter, “then it is better to order a whole bottle.”

Fair enough, said the host, a young guy from one of India’s better-known business families. He looked at the list and chose a wine that cost around Rs 4,000. The waiter went away and then returned to say, “I’m sorry sir, but we don’t have that wine. However, I suggest you drink this. It’s even better.”

The young man and his friends tried the wine. It was, in fact, excellent. Like many young people they know the difference between a good wine and a bad wine but lack the knowledge to look at a bottle and recognise that it is an expensive wine. In any case, they assumed that as the wine that they had originally ordered was priced at Rs 4,000, the replacement would be in the same range. When the bill came, they were in for a shock. The wine cost Rs 30,000.

Why did the restaurant do this? It is an otherwise excellent restaurant run by one of India’s most ethical hotel chains. My guess is that the restaurant had a sales target to reach, took one look at the young man and decided that as his parents were billionaires, it could hit him for a large sum of money.

In the restaurant business, they call this up-selling. I call it cheating. There are other wine rip-offs that have now become commonplace. For instance, at some restaurants if you order two glasses of champagne, they will ostentatiously open a fresh bottle and leave it in a bucket near your table. You will be pleased that they opened a new bottle and will not mind so much when they keep topping up your glasses unasked for. The worst that can happen, you say to yourself, is that I will end up paying for the whole bottle rather than the two glasses we had planned on drinking.

According to me, restaurants that do this are already behaving unprofessionally. If a guest orders two glasses, you are obliged to wait until he orders two more. You can’t unilaterally ply him with champagne.

But what’s worse is that the rip-off goes further. A well-known Bombay writer was subjected to this treatment in a restaurant recently and then charged not for the bottle of champagne but for each individual glass – which works out to much more. The writer in question is not particularly rich and is a regular at the Bombay restaurant in question. But they ripped her off anyway.

All three instances are from Bombay but up-selling is a national phenomenon. As incomes grow, unscrupulous restaurateurs delight in taking money off innocent patrons. I have written before about other scams. The most notorious of these is the mineral water scam where they serve you Evian or some other expensive water unasked for and then bill you several hundred rupees for the privilege of drinking water. Over-priced daily specials and off-menu ingredients sold at outrageous prices are becoming staples of the restaurant business in India just as they are in the West.

So, what can you do? My first suggestion may sound snobbish but is, in fact, the truth. Do not waste your time asking waiters, managers or firangi drop-outs masquerading as sommeliers to recommend a wine. Most of them know nothing about wine and even those who do have no interest in enhancing your meal experience. They either want to meet their sales targets or are trying to push wines that nobody is ordering and which the restaurant is trying to off-load. Second, never order anything if you don’t know the price. Always ask. Don’t worry if asking makes you look cheap. Not asking makes you look like an idiot. And it’s better to seem cheap than foolish.

If you have been ripped off, always complain. Always. If you are with a large group of people and do not want to create a scene, then pay the bill without making a fuss. But the very next day, write to the chief executive of the hotel company or the restaurant owner pointing out what has happened. If you get a reply (and my guess is that the hotel companies, at least, will take the trouble to reply) then do not hesitate to ask for a refund or some compensation. If you don’t get a reply, then spread the word. Write to websites, tell your friends, and boycott the restaurant. It may or may not be all right to up-sell some items. But it’s never right to cheat guests.

- From HT Brunch, May 22
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First Published: May 20, 2011 11:25 IST