You can always make a dish at home for less than what you’d pay at a restaurant — that’s a given.
A restaurant has to factor in overhead costs when they price out a menu, but certain items provide restaurants with more opportunity to overprice than others. You might choose to do a little more home cooking after finding out these restaurant secrets.
Click through to discover sneaky ways restaurants trick you into spending more money.
Restaurants typically charge between two to three times the bottle cost for craft beers, according to the publication CraftBeerRestaurant.com. Restaurants might also multiply the beer’s wholesale cost by a fixed markup factor and add an overhead service charge — usually between 50 cents and $1 — then get into specialized pricing and rounding up. If a bar or restaurant pays $4.50 for a bottle of domestic craft beer, you can expect to pay up to $12 for it.
No matter how you look at it, you won’t get a retail price for beer at a restaurant. Meanwhile, brewing beer at home can cost less than $1 per 12-ounce serving, according to the American Homebrewers Association.
You can get the best beer for your buck at these breweries in every state.
Pancakes, Waffles and French Toast
Restaurants love breakfast and brunch foods. Items like Belgian waffles, pancakes and French toast usually require little prep time and have low ingredient costs — meaning restaurants can earn a pretty penny on these foods. For example, a la carte brunch dishes at The Cheesecake Factory are priced between $10 and $17. If you want to save money, you can make your own pancakes or waffles at home using store-bought mix for under $3.
After Starbucks raised its coffee prices in June 2017, customers started paying between $1.95 and $2.15 for their 12-ounce morning cup of joe. However, according to the Seacoast Coffee Company, a 12-ounce cup of coffee made from premium beans costs just 23 cents — meaning that your simple Starbucks order fetches at least eight to nine times more than its wholesale price.
Do your wallet a favor and learn how to cut your Starbucks bill without giving up your coffee.
Fans of chicken tenders might think they’ll get the best deal at fast-food restaurants like Kentucky Fried Chicken, where customers can pick up nine “extra crispy” tenders for only $10, but they’re sorely mistaken. You can make quality chicken tenders at home for 55 cents per two-piece portion, according to Iowa State University. That’s a markup of approximately 400 percent — keep that money in your wallet instead.
Whether you’re enjoying a casual dining experience or splurging on a five-star establishment, restaurants place a substantial markup on desserts. Much of the dessert cost goes toward labor: Creative, talented pastry chefs don’t come cheap, with an average salary of $42,536 to $96,159 depending on experience, according to Salary.com . That’s why high-volume, casual restaurants rarely make their desserts in house and order them from suppliers instead — it’s difficult to turn a profit on them otherwise.
Dessert markups happen outside of restaurants, too. Sprinkles, a gourmet cupcake bakery, sells its cupcakes for almost $5 a pop. However, you can buy chocolate cake mix and make a dozen cupcakes for under $2, reaping considerable savings.
Few foods have as many applications as eggs. In savory dishes, desserts and sauces, eggs are everywhere; there are thousands of ways to spice up a boring meal with eggs. It also opens the door for huge restaurant markups.
When you buy an egg dish in a restaurant, you’re essentially paying for labor costs. A spinach and mushroom omelet topped with Brie cheese costs about $1.40 to make, according to Forbes, but the sticker price can be $8 on the average restaurant menu — a markup of 471 percent.
The next time you turn your nose up at tap water in restaurants, remember this: Bottled water comes with a markup of approximately 1,000 percent per bottle, according to CBS New York. It wouldn’t hurt to forgo the Perrier and stick with a glass of tap instead.
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Besides being a popular and delicious menu item, guacamole helps restaurants make bank. Made-to-order guacamole and chips at a restaurant like The Cheesecake Factory cost $11.50. Granted, avocado prices rose nearly 40 percent in 2017, according to Newsweek, but you can do much better at home instead of overspending at a restaurant.
A six- to eight-serving portion of homemade guacamole with four avocados, one small yellow onion, one bunch of cilantro and two limes costs around $7.50 to make. Chips are extra, and they might not be “unlimited” like you find in restaurants, but the money you save on the guacamole can more than make up for it.
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Oysters at regular price cost between $2.50 and $5 each so those $1 oysters during happy hour can seem like an incredible steal. But beware. You might be getting inexpensive, lower-quality oysters at restaurant happy hours, and once you’re in the door, you’ll probably be suckered into ordering a few more menu items.
According to Silver Point Oysters, you can buy a 100-count bushel of large Pacific oysters in their shells for $61.50. Even with $1 oyster specials, restaurants can make a tidy profit.
Most dishes that use staple foods as the base ingredient, such as the rice in risotto, usually deliver some of the biggest profit margins in restaurants.
Take pasta as another example. Most pasta dishes, such as fettuccine Alfredo, typically cost less than $5 to make multiple servings, whereas a casual Italian restaurant like Olive Garden sells it for $12.99 — that’s more than double the price for less food. And when restaurants add basic ingredients — like sauteed mushrooms or olives — to their pricier dishes, the profit margins only increase.
Smoothies and Juices
Juices and smoothies have experienced growing popularity in parallel with the trend toward healthy eating in recent years. Datassential MenuTrends reports that juices are served in 61.2 percent of restaurants, while smoothies show up on 8 percent of all menus.
The markup is high — for example, 50 percent — especially for establishments that use more expensive, organic ingredients or juice pressers. A medium-sized smoothie at Planet Smoothie runs between $5 to $7, whereas a juice from Pressed Juicery is typically $6.50. Some premium smoothies and juices can even cost $10 or more.
The cost of pizza varies with the restaurant’s size, location and overhead, such as sit-down versus carryout operations. But those factors don’t affect how much it costs to make pizza at home, so it’s a safe bet that any homemade pizza costs less than its restaurant counterpart.
A margherita pizza is usually priced around $12, but you can make one at home for about $1.77, which is a 580 percent markup. When it comes to extra toppings, you can save even more — plus you can customize it however you want.
Salads tend to be the more moderately priced items on a menu, but they play a significant role in helping a restaurant make up for food costs. Take the Cobb salad, for example, a staple of the casual restaurant menu. Cobb salads typically cost around $12, and consist of romaine lettuce, bacon, avocado, blue cheese, oil and vinegar, red onion, cherry tomatoes, egg and a 6-ounce chicken breast.
You can make the same salad with quality ingredients at home for $3.45 — a 248 percent savings.
Chips and Salsa
Who doesn’t love munching on some chips and salsa while waiting for the real food to arrive? An order of this classic appetizer costs around $4 at Chili’s, which seems cheap, especially when you can easily spend the same amount to buy chips and salsa in a store. However, believe it or not, homemade fresh salsa actually costs less than half the price of store-bought salsa — and it can taste way better, too. Take just five minutes in the kitchen to reap savings of over 50 percent.
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Unless you dine in a restaurant that serves freshly harvested seafood — think any respectable establishment in proximity to the coast — you’re paying a significant dinner markup on crustaceans simply for the perception of luxury.
A shrimp cocktail appetizer at a place like Red Lobster costs around $9. But you can get up to 50 shrimp for only $16.79 at Costco — enough to make about 10 shrimp cocktails.
Lobster Mac and Cheese
The lobster mac and cheese of your dreams might contain homemade pasta, fine cheeses and plump lobster meat, but that’s not the case more often than not. Generally, when you order lobster mac and cheese at restaurants, you’re getting meat scraps from the shell — not the expensive lobster tail or claws.
The markup for this perceived “luxury” dish can be staggering. Compare the $26.49 lobster mac and cheese at Red Lobster with the homemade version using a 99-cent box of mac and cheese and a can of Maine lobster meat for $11.87 — it’s more than twice as expensive.
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Side dishes produce a decent profit because they usually include foods that are already part of one or several other dishes on the menu, and the ingredients can be cheap. Take potatoes, for example.
Restaurants like The Cheesecake Factory charge around $5 for a serving of mashed potatoes. But it only takes 1 1/2 pounds of potatoes to serve two people generously, and each pound averages 73 cents — the markup is approximately 455 percent.
Ordering a nice cup of tea to wash down your meal seems innocuous enough — you can get herbal or flavored hot teas at Olive Garden for $2.75. But you might not have realized that 100 Lipton black tea bags cost only $3.48 at Walmart, which comes out to about 3 cents per tea bag. Assuming that the restaurant uses one bag per tea order, you’re getting charged over 90 times the cost of the tea.
Consider bringing your own beverages from home instead.
Roasted vegetables are a naturally flavorful, healthy way to get your greens, but they can be a hassle to prepare in the oven. It’s tempting to skip the prep time and just order them in a restaurant like Stonefire Grill, where you’d pay $5.99 for a two-serving portion. But hold off if you can to avoid the 881 percent markup — roasted veggies cost just 68 cents for two servings if you make them at home, according to Iowa State University.
If you’re a fan of American cheese, this classic comfort food is priced at a reasonable-looking $3 by The Grilled Cheese Truck. But considering that you can buy an entire loaf of bread for $2.50 and an American cheese single from Kraft for merely 16 cents, the deal doesn’t look too sweet after all. Head to the market and stock up on supplies that can provide a stack of grilled cheeses instead of purchasing just one overpriced sandwich.
Restaurants pay pennies on the dollar for nonalcoholic beverages. The price that diners pay is significantly higher, though.
Restaurants can pour fountain drinks for less than 10 cents per serving, but they sell those beverages for around $2 each. The typical restaurant markup for a glass of the fizzy stuff is a shocking 2,000 percent. That’s a good reason to drink more water.
These oily morsels are a delicious staple on any appetizer menu, but the breading-meat ratio can be abysmal — leaving plenty of room for restaurants to make extra cash. A fried calamari appetizer at restaurants like The Cheesecake Factory commands an $11.95 price tag, but you can snag store-bought versions for as low as $1.48 and skip the 807 percent markup.
Professional kitchens exemplify the economics of waste. Vegetable scraps, meat trimmings and just about anything clean but unpresentable gets repurposed. About half of the vegetables used to make large vats of stock come from the prep cooks’ daily collection of usable trim, so the stock used in most soup bases costs practically nothing, other than the labor used to create them. If a restaurant is making chicken stock, it simply roasts the bones left over from breaking down chickens and adds them to existing vegetable stock.
A bowl of French onion soup, for example, costs about $5.50 to $6 at a casual restaurant. At home, you can make eight servings of Julia Child’s renowned French onion soup — Gruyere cheese included — for about $22, or $2.75 per bowl, which is 100 percent cheaper than its restaurant counterpart.
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Restaurants earn a higher profit margin on wine than they do on food. On average, restaurants charge between 200 percent and 600 percent of the wholesale cost for each bottle, according to Intuit QuickBooks. Other than avoiding ordering wine altogether, you have one more option for lowering the costs of alcohol you’ll drink in a restaurant: Bring your own bottle.
Most restaurants allow you to bring your own bottle of wine for a corkage fee, which usually ranges from $10 to $40. Corkage fees save you money, but only when you bring an expensive bottle. For example, if you bring an $80 California Bordeaux blend that the restaurant sells for $200, a $20 corkage fee proves economical.
Restaurants run daily specials for one of three reasons: to test a new menu item, to showcase a new specialty item or to get rid of aging stock. The markups on the first two types of specials vary according to the specialty ingredient’s cost; the industry standard for food costs is 28 percent to 30 percent of a menu price, according to research by Baker Tilly. The last type of special — using up the last of a protein or vegetable, for example — can involve a big markup to avoid raising customer suspicion. That doesn’t mean the food is bad, however.
Click through to learn how to hack the menu and get the best deals for any dinner out.
A.J. Andrews contributed to the reporting for this article.
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Prices are accurate as of Aug. 15, 2018.