A Free Lunch (and other scams)
There is no such thing, right? Well, that was the idea. The phrase, coined in the saloons of the Old West, was a gimmick cooked up by enterprising bartenders to keep the clientele aptly parched. Forget a stale dish of Planter’s peanuts — the barkeep of yore would crack open your thirst with a banquet of salty snacks. Pretzels, oysters, pickled herring, cheeses and salt pork sandwiches lined the “free lunch” counter, the cost conspicuously hidden in the price of a schooner of beer and the refills that you were bound to frantically empty your pockets for.
Sure to spur on a boisterous lot, there was ample temptation for desperate souls with nary a nickel to their name to sneak into the rowdy crowd and grab a bite. And chance it they did. But those 19th century reprobates were risking life and limb (and an unquenchable thirst, with no alms for an ale) for a plate of fried clams — those vigilant (and quite likely pistol-toting) barkeeps weren’t in the business of charity.
That should have been the end of it, yet the free lunch scam continues to this day, with less danger and desperation, but far more drama. Short of cruising the continental breakfast bar at your local Holiday Inn, what’s a hungry con(fidence) man to do in these modern times? Swindle a happy meal? There are no shortage of blogs that lay out that scheme in colourful detail (including helpful suggestions such as, “You better be sober when you do this,” and “make sure your asshole friends don’t laugh and blow your cover.”)
But those with a finer palate know where the real score is: bullying our city’s best restaurateurs and chefs into comped meals, gift certificates and heartfelt apologies. And with no Colt-45 (and I don't mean malt liquor) hidden under the till, a feast awaits when scruples are in short supply.
The trick leads our confidence men and women to sink their parasitic fangs into a restaurant of good repute, since they’ll be wanting a delectable nosh. Unlike the free lunch scam, this ruse takes advantage of the anonymity of our digital era. Seated at a laptop, a tale of woe is fabricated based on whatever menu happens to appear online. Then it is only a matter of going on and on about the utter disappointment they experienced during a make-believe meal on a make-believe date. A war of words ensues, with claims of apathetic servers, incompetent chefs and hostile hosts hurtled at our confounded victim, who trip over themselves trying to clarify and remedy the situation, while tempering the inevitable threats of extortion via Tripadvisor.
Then there are the scores of accidental confidence men who have taken the trouble of actually sitting down to a meal at a restaurant, only to do their darndest to have a terrible time and complain to their servers ad nauseum about the mediocrity of everything in sight, all the while laughing and licking their plate clean.
It seems almost too easy: catching small business folk in the usual frantic and exhausted state that comes with being in the business of hospitality, where we will drive ourselves mad (often to drink — see previous story) trying to make everyone happy.
But the jig might finally be up. Our point-of-sale systems, while frustratingly prehistoric at times, do keep records of table seatings and order times, so we do know if you really did wait over an hour for your appetizer. Our staff — those pesky professionals we have entrusted with our livelihoods — tend to remember a few telling details, such as whether you did indeed mention you are deathly allergic to celery or that we over-cooked your cod. One swindler, finally ousted by Juniper’s general manager back in 2009, after six other restaurants received similarly suspect complaints, publicly apologized for her shameless behaviour. Rest assured, the industry has an eyebrow cocked to each and every complaint.
But doubt is a powerful weapon. The last thing we want to do is cast off someone who has legitimately had a bad experience. So if you really want a free lunch, here’s a tip: be a good customer. One day you might find yourself, legitimately, without a bill.