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There’s Nothing Polite About Declining Modifications and Substitutions

April 10, 2012

OK, OK... It's actually on a whole stack of menus.  Dolphin Restaurant - Sultanahmet, Istanbul
(Photo by laszlo-photo)

I’m somewhat amused when I see “Modifications and substitutions politely declined” on a menu. I used to think it was a mark of cheapness at fast food or low-end restaurants – an indication of pre-made meals, making modifications impossible. But now this notice is not uncommon at high-end restaurants as well, such as Zambri’s in Victoria:

“Substitutions politely declined. While modifications & substitutions may seem easy to accommodate, these requests compromise the unique characteristics of our food & the efficiency of our service.”

The above is clear – no changes of any sort allowed. But sometimes it’s not so black and white. Some menus state “no substitutions” – which should mean you can’t have one thing for another. But, they should be able to omit some ingredients without any problem. Whereas restaurants that state no modifications may have a problem with any change whatsoever, as per the above. And any such notice discourages questions or requests, so you might never find out the extent of its enforcement. It’s good that at least restaurants are now stating this right on their menu, rather than waiting for patrons to make the request, only to be declined, resulting in awkwardness and time wasted in having to re-read the menu.

I understand that restaurants have their reasons. It must be a pain in the butt to have to keep track of which dishes have been modified. I’m sure it slows down service all around. The items being subbed in may cost more. There’s the cost of time in noting the change, keeping track of it, and then customizing the individual dish.

Then there’s the ego-related reasons of food being the chef’s artistic expression and being meant to be eaten exactly how it was originally envisioned. I get that the customer might disrupt a flavor balance and that the chef might be worried that if a component is left out or added, the dish will no longer taste as it’s supposed to, which runs the risk of the customer being dissatisfied, with the chef being unfairly blamed.

However, in my opinion, there’s nothing polite about declining substitutions and modifications. The customer is paying for the food and the service. Yes, the customer can choose to not dine at such restaurants. But whatever happened to common courtesy and hospitality? The customer is a guest, and a paying one at that. If the customer has allergies, they’re not welcome in your “home”? If they have a strong food preference, you’re not wiling to try to accommodate it? If they would simply like you to leave an ingredient out, or serve it on the side, it’s considered acceptable to flat out refuse? Where’s the customer service?

If the server would like to explain to me how the modification may adversely affect my culinary experience, any such wisdom will be appreciated and taken into consideration. However, in the end, it should be my choice, within reason. I acknowledge that there may be unreasonable fussy diners out there, and if a dish stops resembling what’s on the menu, well, the line has to be drawn somewhere. But to outright deny any changes to my meal before even knowing what they are? I find that arrogant.

Although Zambri’s policy was not personally an issue for me, as I found dishes that I was happy to eat unaltered, the policy did not sit well with me. Victoria Beckham and Gordon Ramsay were also less than impressed when such a policy was enforced on them at Gjelina. And I remember reading about people from the paleosphere at the Ancestral Health Symposium last year who indulged at LA’s Animal, gluten and all due to its “changes and modifications politely declined” policy.

What’s your take on no modification/substitution policies?

Shared with Fight Back Fridays, Real Food Wednesdays and the Healthy Home Economist.

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Jenny April 11, 2012 at 9:08 AM

I have to agree! I’ve heard the excuse before from restaurants about not wanting customers to throw off the “balance of flavours” and whatnot in a dish, but I can’t get on board with that sort of thing. You make really good points about how the customers ARE the ones paying, after all, and it’s in fact bordering on rude to flatly state that you’re not willing to accommodate alterations in any case or scenario. Also, given that restaurant items are enormously marked up these days anyway, I can hardly see how subbing in an item that is slightly more expensive might make the sale unprofitable anyway (in most cases – not if you’re asking for shiitake mushrooms instead of white ones, for example).

Have these policies been popping up in Vancouver? I see the “no substitution” policy from time to time, but it is usually for combination sets and not much of a big deal… With all of the people going gluten-free or vegan in BC (or, well, everywhere, it seems), it’s kind of surprising that there are places like that even in Victoria…

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admin@primalist April 11, 2012 at 8:38 PM

I don’t think I’ve seen it on a menu in Vancouver yet.. I wasn’t surprised to hear about it happening in LA, but I was surprised about Victoria.. not a fan…

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Aaron April 12, 2012 at 8:00 PM

Brilliant post. As you point out, there are arguments to be made for both sides.

I’ll just add one thought I have. When most people eat out they’re usually with someone else (friends, family, co-workers). This makes for a tougher decision to move on to another restaurant if you see the no modifications policy.

I think in most cases if I was dining solo I would bolt to the next place. If I was with others, well, then many more factors come into play.

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admin@primalist April 12, 2012 at 8:37 PM

Good point. Being paleo is enough of a pain in the arse for my friends to handle ;)

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2GF April 13, 2012 at 9:15 AM

Im sorry to say folks
that the ego trip method of restaurateurism
is rampant here in Victoria

Im sorry you had this experience

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admin@primalist April 13, 2012 at 7:46 PM

Thanks for the comment. Is there anywhere I should’ve checked out while in Victoria?

reader April 14, 2012 at 1:38 AM

if someone can’t work with substitutions and modifications then they’re not much of a chef.

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Malin April 18, 2012 at 12:46 PM

I’m in the UK and have NEVER seen a sign like this.

What I do see are more and more restaurants listing where soya or gluten is in meals. If I was out with friends and saw a sign like this, I think we’d probably just walk right back out again.

Last year we went to Prezzos and because they specialise in pizza they didn’t really have any meal on the menu that was paleo-friendly. So I asked for the burger without the bun. So they brought me out my burger, with the side salad, but also with two big lettuce leaves so I could use them to wrap the burger instead of bread.

Yeah, I would reserve the right to refuse them my money. If nothing else, if everyone else wanted to stay, I would sit there and sip tap water whilst people around me ate.

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admin@primalist April 19, 2012 at 9:15 PM

I like your style :)

And yes, that’s the other side of the coin – I have definitely noticed more restaurants pointing out which meals don’t contain gluten, which is great.

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Laura @ Stealthy Mom April 23, 2012 at 8:52 AM

I agree that a blanket statement about modifications is rude. It implies that customers have no common sense. Of course many dishes are prepped ahead. Soups and sauces, in particular, can take hours, if not days, if they were made on-site. Who is going to demand that their own portion of chicken parmesan contain no garlic?

On the other hand, how is it such a big deal to swap potatoes for rice, or to leave fake cheese crumbles off a salad?Seeing that message on a menu would have me seeing the door.

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admin@primalist April 23, 2012 at 9:18 PM

Agreed – and if people ask for an alteration to something that was prepared in advance, then a simple explanation would suffice.

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john broussard June 4, 2012 at 12:25 PM

If you are a cook with several years experience, you see that with with the downturn in the economy comes intensified personalization in the restaurant industry, and your workload is increased regularly with little or no increase in pay. Obviously only a non-cook or a manager would rail against the no-mod policies (Father’s Office is another great one), and you have to be outside the circle of workers who experience a rush of orders at 7PM on Friday evenings to think “Let’s have more modifications, please!”

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admin@primalist June 5, 2012 at 11:44 AM

I can totally see where you are coming from. I don’t deny that mods/subs are kind of a pain for the kitchen. Having said that, I am paying to dine at the establishment, so as long as I’m being reasonable, I feel my subs/mods should be accommodated. We live in times of dietary allergies and preferences, so restaurants need to learn to accommodate them.

Thanks for mentioning Father’s Office – I ate there, took off the bun myself and suffered through some bacon (I don’t eat pork, and it was blended into the sauce which I hadn’t anticipated). Wasn’t thrilled with the experience – burger was mediocre, and I was slightly miffed that I couldn’t have it how I wanted.

I recently dined at North in Scottsdale. The short ribs on the menu came on polenta. I don’t eat corn. I scanned the menu and noticed another dish came on kale, which was also available as a side. I asked for the sub. No problem. Again, as long as I’m being reasonable, I feel I should be accommodated.

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John July 17, 2014 at 6:38 AM

You don’t seem to eat anything!! It might be easier for you to stay at home, where your extensive list of “dietary restrictions” can be easily accommodated by you!

Vickie October 9, 2012 at 7:02 PM

It’s damn right rude.

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Kevin October 27, 2014 at 9:19 PM

Obviously you are not a cook. The problem is that for efficiency most ingredients are pre combined because for consistency. As a chef I fight with this a lot. The reason that I set menu items to come as they are is because it causes so much confusion when you have already underpaid and inexperienced cooks reading the ticket. Again this is something you cannot understand or appreciate unless you are a cook and have to deal with the pretentious on a daily basis. A well designed menu will have continuity within the kitchen . The bottom line is that if you don’t like the dish then choose something else. Not once have I personally gone to a restaurant and cried because I didn’t like onions in my pasta primavera. I sudgest you and Anyone else who feels like they should have things there way pry the silver spoon out of their ass and get a job as a cook and then you may have some right to an opinion on this matter.

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Kevin October 27, 2014 at 11:21 PM

John seems to be the only other cook responding. Unfortunately I see this attitude in this generation of entitlement. The customer is NOT always right. He or she needs to understand that they are there to choose from a menu and that it it is immposible to run a restaurant “a la carte” on everything. I personally have no problem 86ing and ingredient however, logistically speaking given the thousands of calculations already given with a ticket bomb it is more than likely that my minimum wage line cook is going to send your food out the way he was trained to send it out.. This is why major restaurants do not allow modifications as it completely throws the flow of the kitchen off and ruins the consistency of food quality. Once again, a GM who has no idea of how a kitchen works will argue but I still say either spend some time behind the line before you bitch about onions in your pasta or maybe try staying home and cooking for your own pretentious ass. Haven’t you idiots seen the movie “waiting”? Not that I would do that but it should give you an idea of how it makes us feel.

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