How to Master the Art of the Restaurant Upsell 

How to Master the Art of the Restaurant Upsell 

By Andrew Murphy, Director of Business Development at Flores Financial 


If you’ve worked in the restaurant business even for a short while you’ll be familiar with that nifty little sales tool, the upsell. Not only is it an effective way to boost profits, but when done well it can also enhance your customer’s experience. However, it’s not without its challenges. When poorly executed there’s a risk that diners feel pressured into buying, thereby reducing the likelihood of a return visit. Others are put off by unsuitable suggestions that are more about pushing a dish than tailoring recommendations around them. Here we share how to best employ the power of the upsell without alienating your customers. 


“Do you want fries with that?” is a small but mighty question. It’s a very simple example of the subtle art of engaging your customers with the menu and influencing them to buy add-ons or higher margin menu items to maximize their spend. Naturally, any increase in sales will impact your bottom line based on the margins you’re running. Boost sales enough and issues like cash flow and poor labor numbers will start to correct themselves. As they say, sales cures all. 

Here are a few things to bear in mind that will help you maximize the benefits of upselling for your San Diego restaurant while side-stepping any potential negatives:

Avoid the Hard Sell

No business survives without sales, but there’s an etiquette that should surround upselling. Aggressive upselling is a big no-no, not least because it diminishes a customer’s experience, which may mean they don’t come back. And let’s not forget that a returning customer is worth more than an extra cocktail. An approach that keeps your customer front and center with a focus on hospitality is the way to go. 

Invest in Good Training 

Your customer’s interaction with your business starts with great servers. Servers who are intimately acquainted with your menu–how everything is made, the key ingredients, maybe where they’re sourced from, etc. This knowledge makes it far easier to engage the customer without overtly upselling. In this way, your servers become a guide, not a salesperson, which is exactly how it should be.  

Explain to your staff why upselling is important and how it can help to build a relationship with the customer to guide their experience. Encourage them to be considered in their recommendations so that they’re tailored to the customer. So-called ‘situational selling’ may be harder to teach than the traditional upsell, but the value lies in its ability to nurture long-term customer relationships and less about short-term profit.  

Live, Breathe, Eat Hospitality

We bandy around words like ‘service’ and ‘hospitality’ on a daily basis, but how often do we explain what they really mean to our business? Pre-scripted upsells that some restaurants use in training are helpful to get servers going but can be a major obstacle to building genuine rapport when they lack the fluidity to respond to individual diners and scenarios. Instead, timely, helpful suggestions enable servers to tailor the guest experience. 

As part of your training program, define what hospitality means to you and what it looks like in action, and arm them with the product knowledge, questions and confidence they need to respond to customers in any situation. Once defined, hospitality should be embedded in your culture with a clear goal, preferably one identified in your mission statement. 

Know Your High Profit Items 

Before you start upselling you need to know which menu items have the best margins. Liquor and beer are often great places to start so it’s always a good idea to ask guests if they’d like a drink with their meal. An auxiliary dish, such as a dessert or appetizer, is another good choice. Know your plate costs by investing in recipe costing cards and you’ll be able to pick the items with the best margins in a moment.

Friendly Server Competitions

Even the most motivated team can experience energy slumps so why not introduce a little friendly rivalry from time to time with a server competition? Again, we stress that a carefully crafted customer experience should remain at the heart of service so a responsible approach is required, but a skilled, highly-trained serving team can still be motivated to upsell particular menu items over a short period to encourage a spike in numbers. 

Embrace Technology

Fast-food restaurants can see a significant increase in sales by introducing a POS system that automatically prompts employees to ask important upselling questions like, ‘Would you like fries and a drink with your meal?” before the transaction can be completed.

Menu Design 

Let’s face it, most of us value the space to make our own decisions when it comes to ordering a meal so while a subtle approach is everything between guest and server, feel free to lay all the add-on options out there on your menu. That way diners can feel empowered to add bacon to their burger having read ‘extra bacon $2’ next to the burger item on your menu. It’s a great way to whet their appetite.  

Gift Cards

Did you know that customers typically spend between 20% to 60% more than the value of their restaurant gift card, often blowing them on high ticket items? Gift cards are relatively cheap to implement, encourage repeat business, and the holders are often more receptive to upsells than your average customer–if you’re not already using them, you’re missing out. 

Finally, Measure, Refine, Improve 

Define a specific period of time for your first upsell campaign and then work with a specialist restaurant accountant in San Diego like Flores to measure how well it went. Did sales increase? How did they impact your bottom line? With this information you can refine your approach for your next campaign, choosing higher margin items that are more lucrative than regular menu items.

If you’re wondering how to boost your restaurant profits through upselling but you’re not sure where to start, or you want to understand how best to monitor your existing upselling efforts for better results, get in touch and speak to one of our specialist restaurant accounting experts.