Monday, January 11, 2010

Everyday Ethics: Bread at the Restaurant

So there's been a lot of discussion  recently about Oreo cookies in the blogosphere.  I don't really want to repeat much of that, but if you read Jean's blog, and read my comments there, you'll see how it inspired me with this entry. 

I was in Europe last summer.  Being a vegetarian in Paris is hard.  Being a vegetarian in London is amazingly easy.  But oddly, there was one time, in London, when Tiffany and I ran into a restaurant and couldn't find a vegetarian option that sounded appealing to us (you can only eat so much pasta).  We sat down, looked over the menu, made our selections, and the waitress replied that they were out of what we wanted (it was late).  So we decided to leave the restaurant, and picked up a veggie burger at Burger King (which was significantly different than the veggie burgers in the states). 

But the ethical dilemma here is that when we were seated, they served us some bread.  Like I pointed out in Jean's blog, we all end up paying for the bread, eaten or uneaten through what we buy at the restaurant.  We can't simply say, I'll skip the bread, and demand a 20 cent discount on our meal.  But Tiffany and I didn't buy a meal at the restaurant.  So the bread was left uneaten and since it was served it was probably thrown away (assuming the health codes are the same in the UK as in the US).  Did we steal bread?  Did we have an obligation to pay for it?

Now I'm sure there are studies that show that the bread is a hook to keep customers from leaving the restaurant after being seated without ordering something.  If not studies, then perhaps that is the true motivation for the bread.  Whatever the case, in this particular circumstance, I think we were justified in leaving without paying, since the restaurant was advertising a particular meal (on their menu outside) and didn't have it. 

So change the scenario slightly...  We sit down,  I open up the menu and have a sudden realization.  I'm not hungry.  I share the thought with my wife and she realizes she's not hungry either.  The bread is at our table and the waiter patiently waits.  Do we have to order to pay for the bread?  I could order a soda or something small.  Or is the bread truly complimentary?  Could I go from restaurant to restaurant sitting down, mulling over the menu as I snack on the bread, and retire at the end of my night not ordering anything, yet fully satisfied?  If the bread is truly complimentary, I could do that.

The bread isn't truly complimentary, as my latter scenario suggests.  I think most people would find it a little questionable, just like going to the ice cream store, sampling all the flavors and leaving without purchasing anything.  The intent to cheat the system is wrong here.  But in the more difficult scenario, I had no intention of cheating the system, I just thought I was hungry and realized I was mistaken. 

At first glance  I want to be consistent with what I said about the Oreo's (I should pay for them) then I should pay for the bread.  The service was provided for me....  But in the case of the bread, I didn't ask for it, in the case of the Oreos, I did (by taking them out of the minibar).  Had I sat down and asked for bread and not ordered anything, I think I would be doing something wrong.


  1. food for pun intended... I think restaurants serve bread before the meal so that people fill up on it and then are amazed at the portions of the main course when brought out.
    I think it's ethically wrong to hop from restaurant to restaurant eating "free" bread, but you shouldn't feel unethical since an honest mistake was made (in the first scenario).
    Additionally, there are probably people who specifically request not to have bread brought out (because of a lack of self control or special diet). So, you could justify it by saying that someone else probably declined to be served bread. Or if you need another reason, the restaurant probably throws out lots of bread on a daily basis.
    Also as you hinted at, the bread is subsidized by a higher meal price for all, so really, if anything, you'd be stealing from other customers.

  2. Young Kim(phil 101)

    I guess we see those kinds of situation pretty often. In my opinion, people have to pay for the bread that is being served for the people. Despite the intention of the bread, the restaurant, as soon as they put the bread on the table it becomes the "customers'". If people did not really want the bread, then they could have said they did not want the bread as they sat down. You said, "I had no intention of cheating the system" I totally agree with that, but if the restaurant just let people go like that, then they are going to do the samething at different restaurants either intentionally or uninternally. The restaurant charges people, so they can prevent people from doing it constrantly.