Imagine: You’re sitting at brunch with your dining companion, talking about the Trump campaign’s latest gaffe or how Woody Allen’s newest project is a complete artistic and moral failure, when your waitress arrives with menus. You scan the menu, looking for your standard lemon ricotta French toast or chilaquiles, when your eyes rest on an item: the brunch bread basket. There are raspberry-glazed beignets. There are Nutella-filled croissants. There is, more likely than not, a hearty helping of cranberry walnut raisin bread.
You consult with your companion. “That sounds delicious,” she says, because of course it does. “We can order it and take it home for breakfast tomorrow,” which of course you don’t do, because you polish it off in one sitting. So you shell out $14 for the brunch bread basket, because it sounds tasty and because, upon further questioning the apologetic waitress, you realize that your meal doesn’t actually come with any complimentary bread.
You might think that the brunch bread basket is a harmless expenditure. I am here to tell you that you are wrong. The brunch bread basket is one of the biggest scams in contemporary American society, second only to dentists telling you you need to floss after every single meal, or that you have to turn off your phone on an airplane. The brunch bread basket is a sneaky way for you to shell out an extra $5 or $10 or even $15 for a food item that, let’s be honest, should be free to begin with. I mean, it’s a few crusts of bread, not a cognac-infused, caviar-encrusted lobster tail. But to make matters worse, it’s also likely you’re not getting fresh bread to begin with. Those glistening whole-wheat croissants, those tiny tubs of whipped strawberry-ricotta butter, even those flocculent, melt-in-your-mouth slices of walnut-raisin bread—all of them might very well be recycled from the next table over.
Technically (and perhaps unsurprisingly), it’s not kosher for restaurants to send unwrapped food items back onto the floor. According to the New York City restaurant inspection guidelines, serving “unprotected food re-served,” such as unwrapped crackers, breadsticks, or bread, constitutes a critical health code violation, which can lower a restaurant’s sanitary inspection scores.
Yet rumors that some restaurants recycle their bread baskets, either out of a desire to cut costs or simply out of laziness, have persisted for years. In his 2000 book Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain exposed the practice when he wrote that the reuse of bread is “industry-wide,” as it’s fairly common for busboys to take bread rolls from a basket and send them back out onto the floor.
“I'm sure that some restaurants explicitly instruct their Bengali busboys to throw out all that unused bread—which amounts to about 50 percent—and maybe some places actually do it,” Bourdain wrote. “But when it's busy, and the busboy is crumbing tables, emptying ashtrays, refilling water glasses, making espresso and cappuccino, hustling dirty dishes to the dishwasher—and he sees a basket full of untouched bread—most times he's going to use it.”
In line with his general IDGAF persona, Bourdain is relatively nonchalant about this practice, arguing that reusing bread isn’t actually all that unhygienic: “Maybe once in awhile some tubercular hillbilly has been coughing and spraying in the general direction of that bread basket… but you might just as well avoid air travel, or subways, equally dodgy environments for airborne transmission of disease. Eat the bread.”
But even though Bourdain says that dusting off a sourdough roll or two and returning it back to the floor doesn’t merit a phone call to the state health department, in instances where restaurant owners charge for bread, or where the bread basket is considered a specialty of the house, the practice of recycling used bread rolls is particularly egregious.
Brett*, 30, worked in high-end Manhattan restaurants for six to seven years while he was in graduate school. He said that while recycling bread from a basket “would probably be the least offensive offense I’ve seen,” it was far from uncommon to see waiters and busboys grab bread from garbage bins to add to new baskets. One of these restaurants was known for its freshly made, in-house biscuits, for which it charged $7 per basket.
“They got away with it because people paid for it. They sold like crazy,” he said. “If people are willing to pay for it, might as well [recycle the bread].”
Sam*, 27, worked as a busboy and then a waiter in a high-end SoHo restaurant known for its in-house bakery that charges more than $20 for pastries and rolls. He said that while it wasn’t a matter of restaurant policy, he did witness the recycling of bread from baskets more than once.
“Bussers trying to save time will move bread from a basket on the table into another basket instead of having to toss it and cut more bread,” he said.
If the prospect of eating another diner’s untouched cheesy biscuits doesn’t squick you out, consider that the cheesy biscuit in question might not be untouched at all. Brett said that during his time in the restaurant industry, it wasn’t uncommon to “recycle the bread with maybe a little something added,” like spit, if a customer was perceived as rude or annoying. “It is gross, but in defense of restaurant staffers, the behavior of the vast majority of clientele… is outright shameful,” he said.
To a degree, none of this is particularly surprising. When you enter a restaurant, there’s something of a tacit agreement between you and the waitstaff: If you’re a decent human being, you get to munch on a plate of delicious lemon ricotta pancakes, made all the more tasty with the peace of mind you get from knowing no one, say, spit in the mix, or wiped their ass with your fork.
But when it comes to the brunch bread basket, this social contract goes out the window. If you buy bread at a restaurant, you are paying for a service that, under most circumstances, should be free. That’s all the more true when you consider that you’re eating brunch, which, at the very least, requires—nay, demands—a side of toast for you to soak up your eggs.
Having a complimentary side of bread at brunch is an inalienable civil right which should be valued as highly as free speech, or the right to not get judgmental looks from other theater patrons when you request they put extra butter on your popcorn. When restaurant owners attempt to violate that right by charging extra for a bread basket—or, worse, charging extra for a bread basket that might not even be fresh—we are all morally obligated to rise up as one and revolt. Or, barring committing an act of physical violence, we should probably, like, give them a bad review on Yelp or something.
*Names have been changed.