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What, Exactly, Is a Comp?


Chris Amirault
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In topics both current and archived we've hashed over the question of comped meals and the relationship that reviewers, tippers, and others should have to those meals. I'm here to ask a more basic question: what, exactly, is a comp?

Something free, yes, I get that part. But what is that free thing?

Thanks to a recent trip to Portland OR, I've been wondering about that. As I documented here, I had a great time enjoying a variety of food and drink at Clyde Common and Teardrop Lounge. But when I was writing up the post, I realized that I wasn't sure how to describe the comps -- or which things were or were not comps.

Here's a simple list drawn from my own experience and focused on cocktails, starting from the smallest to the biggest.

  1. A straw taste of a drink being prepared. This is a common habit of good bartenders who want to make sure that the cocktail is as it should be: poke a straw into a drink, place your finger over the straw, and then put the straw in your mouth, releasing an inch or two of the drink. If you act sufficiently like a baby bird and lean over in the bartender's direction, sometimes they'll dribble a bit of the elixir down your gullet.
  2. Single samples of various items, both homemade and purchased, probably an ounce or so each, often accompanied by "You gotta try this...."
  3. A "flight" of samples -- at Teardrop, that meant four different locally distilled vodkas, also about an ounce each.
  4. An experiment: a one-off that a bartender puts together on the spot in accordance with your wishes, her whim, and whatever wacky ideas you've both got cooking. Sometimes these are knock-outs, forcing you and the bartender to scribble the recipe madly onto a coaster; sometimes they're one sip and done, no hard feelings.
  5. A menu item in development that needs a critique.
  6. A "thanks for being such an eager, interested cocktail enthusiast" nightcap. One bartender explained this as quid pro quo: I had made his evening a lot more fun, so in exchange he offered something in return.

A lot of these things are very common practice at quality cocktail bars, fundamentally social environments where interested parties can spend hours at a time talking about whether the homemade Amer Picon tastes like the original or the proper balance on a Sidecar. Though restaurant tables are, for the most part, far less social, I suspect that you could come up with a similar list of food items, especially if you're at a kitchen table or have been chatting with an eager chef throughout the meal.

So, thinking about 1-6 above and their food equivalents: Comp or not comp?

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Somehow I don't think that comps at a bar are the same as they are at a restaurant. "Buybacks" and "tastes of this and that" are a firmly entrenched part of bar culture in a way that they are not in restaurants. For example, even in dive bars, it's commonplace for the bartender to "buy a round" after the customer has had 3 or 4 beers. It is not so commonplace for a restaurant to bring a free plate to a customer who has ordered 3 or 4 small plates, or even on his 3rd or 4th visit to the restaurant. So a comp in a restaurant is more exceptional. Looking at some of the various "ethics" threads on comping, while I think it makes some sense to "disclose" a comped dessert in a write-up of a restaurant, I'm not so sure it makes the same sense to "disclose" it when the bartender buys your 4th drink out of 5.

Edited by slkinsey (log)

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They are all comps in that they were provided for free.

It depends on motive - whether it was offered to you as a customer in the course of building good will or whether it was offered to you as a writer in the hope of garnering a few review brownie points or luring you to a place you would otherwise not write-up.

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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Looking at some of the various "ethics" threads on comping, while I think it makes some sense to "disclose" a comped dessert in a write-up of a restaurant, I'm not so sure it makes the same sense to "disclose" it when the bartender buys your 4th drink out of 5.

It make not be the same sense, but I think it still makes sense to disclose. Why don't you?

They are all comps in that they were provided for free.

Well, but so are salted nuts, and they aren't comps. How about the single tastes of things? Would you disclose each of those?

It depends on motive - whether it was offered to you as a customer in the course of building good will or whether it was offered to you as a writer in the hope of garnering a few review brownie points or luring you to a place you would otherwise not write-up.

I can't really understand how I can know why a bartender is filling my salted nut bowl up more often than usual: because he's building good will, or because he remembers me as a writer from an earlier conversation, or what.

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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They are all comps in that they were provided for free.

It depends on motive - whether it was offered to you as a customer in the course of building good will or whether it was offered to you as a writer in the hope of garnering a few review brownie points or luring you to a place you would otherwise not write-up.

That can't be the standard because the customer/writer can't be charged with being a mindreader.

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I tend to agree with Chris that it ALL should be disclosed (except as set forth in the last paragraph below).

But I'd also draw a distinction between the traditional buyback and a "here's a new drink I'm working on that I'd like you to try because I want your opinion."

I'd say in Chris's list, everything but "1" (the straw taste*) should be disclosed (on a FWIW basis).

___________________________________________________

* Similarly, I don't think it's a "comp" when the bartender or waiter gives you tastes of a few of the wines on the by-the-glass list to aid you in deciding which one you want to order. OTOH, it was a comp a few weeks ago when a bartender gave me a glass of Macvin with dessert because he thought I'd like it based on our conversation during the course of my dinner.

Edited by Sneakeater (log)
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I can't really understand how I can know why a bartender is filling my salted nut bowl up more often than usual: because he's building good will, or because he remembers me as a writer from an earlier conversation, or what.

That's easy. If you are a writer and are known at the establishment assume it is a motivated comp unless you see others at the bar getting the same treatment.

Well, but so are salted nuts, and they aren't comps. How about the single tastes of things? Would you disclose each of those?

Were salted nuts one of your examples? Actually they are complimentary in they are provided for free. But common sense would lead me to believe they were not a comp intended to influence. In fact I would be highly insulted if they assumed I could be bought for mere peanuts. :wink:

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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They are all comps in that they were provided for free.

It depends on motive - whether it was offered to you as a customer in the course of building good will or whether it was offered to you as a writer in the hope of garnering a few review brownie points or luring you to a place you would otherwise not write-up.

That can't be the standard because the customer/writer can't be charged with being a mindreader.

An experienced restaurant reviewer bats close to 1000 in recognizing special treatment above and beyond. It is not all that hard. Look at those around you. How are they being treated compared to the treatment you're receiving.

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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I receive special treatment above that given those around me all the time, and I'm convinced it's usually because I'm an engaged solo diner who, sitting at the bar, interacts knowledgeably with the bartender a lot and who also is not afraid to order very extravagantly.

But I can't know for sure. The various bartenders at Insieme, for example, where I go maybe twice a year, could be concealing their knowledge that I'm also a foodboard poster.

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But knowing you're receiving special treatment does not allow you to know why you're receiving special treatment. Unless you have a means to understand motives that the rest of the world lacks. :wink:

Consider it well-honed, restaurant reviewer paranoia - like a cop walking into a dark alley. Assume the worst and be pleasantly surprised when you're wrong.

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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Looking at some of the various "ethics" threads on comping, while I think it makes some sense to "disclose" a comped dessert in a write-up of a restaurant, I'm not so sure it makes the same sense to "disclose" it when the bartender buys your 4th drink out of 5.

It make not be the same sense, but I think it still makes sense to disclose. Why don't you?

Because I don't think it is relevant. I don't think it is relevant because I think it is commonplace in bars to comp most any customer, on average, perhaps one drink out of every three or four. This is unexceptional and familiar to everyone who spends times in bars. In restaurants, on the other hand, it is still exceptional. If I'm writing about a bar I've visited for a "friends and family" kind of event, it's taken as read that everything is gratis as it usually is for these kinds of events at both restaurants and bars.

Beyond that, I make no bones about the fact that I have a lot of friends and relationships in the NYC cocktail world. It's simply not practical, reasonable or valuable for me to qualify every post I make about bars, spirits, cocktail designers and/or bartenders by saying that "I am friends with so-and-so, so-and-so, and so-and-so (etc.), and I am recognized in the following bars where I may be likely to get some preferential treatment and am sometimes discounted anywhere from 20% to 100%." This, again, is pretty much true of most anyone who is a part of this relatively small and tightly-knit community -- it's by no means special for me. I suppose that, if I maintained a blog about NYC cocktail bars, I might have a disclaimer page to that effect.

Edited by slkinsey (log)

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Consider it well-honed, restaurant reviewer paranoia - like a cop walking into a dark alley.  Assume the worst and be pleasantly surprised when you're wrong.

But Holly, in a way that's my point.

I'm not a restaurant reviewer. Chris isn't a restaurant reviewer.

We're customers who more-than-occassionally post review-like write-ups on the internet.

Which I suppose gets us back to your contention that the same rules shouldn't apply to bloggers and posters. I agree in principle, but am afraid that the distinction isn't as clear-cut as all that.

Edited by Sneakeater (log)
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I tend to agree with Chris that it ALL should be disclosed (except as set forth in the last paragraph below).

But I'd also draw a distinction between the traditional buyback and a "here's a new drink I'm working on that I'd like you to try because I want your opinion."

I'd say in Chris's list, everything but "1" (the straw taste*) should be disclosed (on a FWIW basis).

___________________________________________________

* Similarly, I don't think it's a "comp" when the bartender or waiter gives you tastes of a few of the wines on the by-the-glass list to aid you in deciding which one you want to order.  OTOH, it was a comp a few weeks ago when a bartender gave me a glass of Macvin with dessert because he thought I'd like it based on our conversation during the course of my dinner.

I don't think any of it needs to be disclosed unless it specifically provided because Chris is a "friend" -- in which case it indicates a relationship in which Chris is likely to get special service or be less critical in his writing -- or it was given because he was a writer. Bartenders buy rounds all the time for complete strangers, it's relevant only insofar as it indicates a bar where another affable stranger might get a round.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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Well, part of it is the distinction between bars and restaurants that Sam draws above.

Most of the time I spend in bars is in restaurant bars, eating not drinking. So the comps I'm thinking of are mainly free extra courses, things like that. Which may or may not be par for the course -- I don't know. Even though they're probably given to me just because I'm affable (and an extravagant orderer), I think they have to be disclosed when I write a place up because (I can't lie) they do tend to favorably dispose me to a place.

Edited by Sneakeater (log)
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Right. Most restaurant "bars" (which are really, in NYC these days, simply less comfortable dining areas with bottles on the other side of the bench) are not the same as proper bars.

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Are we becoming too paranoid about things?

What happened to the community? There are plenty of times when people in the restaurant business are just happy to have people who appreciate what they do - and who will talk to them about it - will just share a taste of this and that?

If you do something really, really well, you want a witness at some point.

For goodness sake, we're talking about a bit of cocktail up a straw!

Be true to yourself.

(Motive - the hardest thing to prove to a judge, the hardest thing to find for yourself)

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Consider it well-honed, restaurant reviewer paranoia - like a cop walking into a dark alley.  Assume the worst and be pleasantly surprised when you're wrong.

But Holly, in a way that's my point.

I'm not a restaurant reviewer. Chris isn't a restaurant reviewer.

We're customers who more-than-occassionally post review-like write-ups on the internet.

Which I suppose gets us back to your contention that the same rules shouldn't apply to bloggers and posters. I agree in principle, but am afraid that the distinction isn't as clear-cut as all that.

I agree re clear-cut. Some bloggers and posters blog and post as a hobby - for fun, to share experiences the same as they would do sitting around a living room. Others see it as entry-level reviewing - an opportunity to develop a style and be noticed - to amass a portfolio to become a reviewer or to achieve reviewer credibility for their blog.

Both should post ethically as their posts can influence a restaurant's success or lack thereof. But those who hope to move out of the living room and into reviewing need to consider such issues as accepting comps.

That said, I don't know why people want to do serious reviews anyway. A review is tedious to write - pretty much a formula. And there is such a dirth of synonyms for tasty. Restaurant writing, other than reviews, is far more stimulating and, in the end, can provide the reader a better feel for a restaurant's potential and capabilities.

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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Depending on what item we are toying with and how busy the restaurant is, we will usually send an experiment out to one of our hardcore regulars for their approval. If we get the nod from them, and we have enough of the ingredients, we'll send out small plates to every table seated in the house.

We were playing with blintz one night, with no ambition to put them on as an added dessert(we've got enough dessert with over 200 cheesecake flavors). We had mixed up some crepe batter for ourselves, and had enough left over to serve the tables in the dining room.

Sometimes when testing new menu items, we'll send out one or two for free before we commit and put them on the menu, but usually to our foodie clients.

Most of the time when I have received comps at bars and restaurants is usually when a chef or bartender that I know just tells me,"Check this out"

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I think we get into a reductio ad absurdum situation when we start speaking of a bar buyback as a comp. Buybacks are standard operating procedure at many bars just as the amuse bouche, bread and petits fours are standard operating procedure at many restaurants. They're also just like a permanent "buy 3 get 1 free" sale. The free item in the "buy 3 get 1 free" sale isn't actually free. It's part of a package you paid for. They wouldn't have given you the "1 free" if you hadn't bought the 3. If they give you the 1 free without you buying the 3, that's a comp. If it's standard operating procedure, something all normal customers get as a matter of course, it doesn't really make sense to think of it as a comp or to make a special disclosure for ethical purposes, does it?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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'Compte', from the French for account. When something is 'comped' the manager is putting it onto their account. It's not free, just someone else is paying for it.

-- Matt.

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'Compte', from the French for account.  When something is 'comped' the manager is putting it onto their account.  It's not free, just someone else is paying for it.

Interesting idea, but inaccurate I think.

From Merriam-Webster:

comp

Pronunciation: \ˈkämp\

Function: noun

Etymology: short for complimentary

Date: 1887

: a complimentary ticket ; broadly : something provided free of charge

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'Compte', from the French for account.  When something is 'comped' the manager is putting it onto their account.  It's not free, just someone else is paying for it.

Interesting idea, but inaccurate I think.

From Merriam-Webster:

comp

Pronunciation: \ˈkämp\

Function: noun

Etymology: short for complimentary

Date: 1887

: a complimentary ticket ; broadly : something provided free of charge

Who is this Merriam-Webster you speak of? Are you being paid to provide their definitions, sir? :raz:

Seriously, though, if the other thread is discussing how or why or when comps should be disclosed and this one is just discussing the definition, I still like the one Holly gave above in post #3: anything provided for free.

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That requires further definition of "free," though. I think, operationally, "free" doesn't simply mean "it doesn't show up on the bill," because then you get into things like bread and tap water being "free" when in fact they're part of the cost built into the meal -- just like the 4th drink "free" is built into the cost of the first 3. So it makes more sense to think of "free" as "it doesn't show up on your bill but in the normal course of business it shows up on other people's bills." That may not always be 100% possible to ascertain, of course, in which case when in doubt disclose.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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