Take it or leave it: Promoting doggy bags

As someone with a small appetite, portion sizes in restaurants are often too big for me. A friend of mine has her own peculiar way of dealing with this when she has leftover food on her plate in a restaurant. She will start by carefully piling the leftovers together, scraping everything into one pile on the side of the plate. Then, she will strategically place her napkin on the plate so that the leftovers are not visible. Once, when she saw me looking at her in mild amusement, she explained that she is worried that if the restaurant staff sees the leftovers, they will think she did not like the food.

For me, the leftovers pose a different concern. I want to ask for a doggy bag to take leftovers home, but if I do, what will others think of me? Will they maybe think I’m cheap or weird?

I’m not the only one who has such feelings. People feel both proud and ashamed about asking for a doggy bag. So if we want people to take doggy bags home – which can decrease food waste – we need to find a strategy to overcome these feelings of shame. When a waitress simply asks if a customer would like a doggy bag, this already helps. Yet, there are better influence strategies that a restaurant can use.

As a restaurant visitor in the Netherlands, you need to actively ask for a doggy bag if you want one. What if we would turn this around? In other words, what if the waitress brings you a doggy bag unless you explicitly say that you do not want one. Our studies show that this decreases the feelings of shame. It also dramatically increases the uptake of doggy bags, with on average 74% of our study participants taking the doggy bag if the default is to get one, compared to only 27% if they have to explicitly ask for the doggy bag themselves.

Problem solved? Not completely… Our studies also indicate that customers are not always happy when a waitress brings doggy bags unsolicited. They perceive it as a limitation of their freedom to choose, and this can negatively affect their satisfaction with the waitress and the restaurant. Luckily our studies indicate two ways to prevent this from happening.

The first is to offer customers a choice that implies taking a doggy bag, for instance by asking them whether they would like a paper or a plastic doggy bag. The customer has a choice, and while he or she debates which doggy bag to take, the focus shifts from “take or leave the doggy bag” to “which doggy bag to take”. (By the way, I have applied this strategy successfully when my kids were in their terrible twos phase of toddler rebellion: “Do you want to put on a seatbelt, or shall mommy put it on?” – never focus on whether or not to wear the seatbelt).

The second way to prevent negative effects on satisfaction with the waitress or the restaurant, is to offer the doggy bag with a friendly smile. After all, if the waitress offers you the leftover food as a gift, that is a nice gesture.

In case you are worried about what customers do with the doggy bag when they get home, you can rest assured. When we asked participants who took leftover lunch items home in one of our studies, what they had done with the food afterwards, more than 80% indicated that food from the doggy bag had been eaten, and many still had items in storage that they planned to eat later on. This did not depend on the strategy that was used regarding the doggy bags. So even when customers were ‘pushed’ towards accepting a doggy bag, they ate from it.

So, there is no need to hide leftover food under a napkin. Just take home a doggy bag and enjoy!

Want to read more? The paper can be found here: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2021.129199. This research is joint work with Ilona De Hooge, Anna de Visser-Amudson (Hotelschool the Hague) and Mirella Kleijnen (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam).

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