How To: Handle Substitutions

As a restaurant owner, you will invariably meet and serve countless customers, each with their own proclivities and preferences. Not one human being is exactly the same as another, and we all may have allergy or diet restrictions we need to follow. Eating out conforms us to a certain menu, but a good restaurant knows how and why they should be accomodating.

If you plan on allowing substitutions and special orders, there are a few simple points to remember.


  • … hear the customer out. A restaurant that is perceived as a stick in the mud may seem elitist (think “The Soup Nazi” from Seinfeld), rigid, and possibly uncaring, and these are rarely seen as a good thing.
  • … make a point to explain that, if it will likely result in a delay, they may be waiting longer for their dish than normal. For example, if they wish for egg whites only, that may only take a few more seconds than using a whole egg, or if they want their pizza extra-baked, that will require a few more minutes. Make sure to get the entire party’s meal out as quick as possible without sacrificing quality, as some members of the party might perceive their delay due to the actions of another.
  • … be upfront. If you’re uncomfortable with replacing a cheap ketchup with an expensive truffle oil, tell them as such. Possibly come up with a price-point for commonly asked-for ingredients. Many customers maybe okay with a flat “50 cents extra for premium toppings” not regularly included in similar price-point meals.

Definitely Try…

  • … and see how peculiar some substitutions might be. What may sound odd at first request could become your next major hit. An extra-toasted grilled cheese could become your new “cheesy croutons” for tomato soup.
  • … and form a consistent guideline across the board that all waitstaff and cooks know and understand. There may be hard limits, such as temperatures or a strict no-additions policy, but it shouldn’t change from customer to customer and waiter to waitress, nor line cook to head chef.


  • … promise what you cannot deliver. If a customer asks for gluten-free pasta and you don’t have a way of making that happen, don’t say that you can.
  • … let food safety issues be overridden. If you feel unsafe giving a customer raw meat, no matter how rare they want their hamburger, make sure it meets food safety guidelines.

Any obstacle is a chance to shine and overcome, and if a customer knows they can have their dietary needs taken care of at your establishment, they’re more likely to return. Take every challenge as an opportunity to make a new loyal customer.