Please, Please Tell Me Now – Why do Restaurants Run Out of Food?

Susan says…


Faithful reader, Garrett, posted a recent comment about going to a restaurant and learning that they were out of fish.  The place has FISH IN THE NAME.  It’s happened to me dozens of times at dozens of different restaurants. 

One time, Ron and I were dining out locally and we were told they were out of potatoes when Ron attempted to order a baked tubar to go along with his chocen hunk of meat at a steakhouse.  This was unacceptable to Ron who plainly informed our unfortunate server: “you know they sell potatoes at Krogers”.  (It was shocking to me, too, that Ron would be so bold.)

Why is is that restaurants run out of items and instead of, say… going to Kroger, they tell customers they don’t have the item?

I can see a legitimate reason being that the food item is a specialty item, one not found in the Krogers and Sam’s Clubs of the world.  I am certain the reason Vandalia Grille had to tell customers they were out of sweet potato fries on my recent visit is that the fries they serve come to the restaurant frozen with a light coating on them to make them crispy.  No delivery = no sweet potato fries in instances like that.  (They were also out of salmon on the same visit.)

If a joint is out of tomatoes, which also has happened to me, why don’t they just go to a grocery store and get some, like in the baked potato scenario?  Are they worried the tomatoes will be of substandard quality?  Do they really think the customer is going to notice when it’s slapped on a burger with a half dozen other components?  Could the server possibly explain they are using tomatoes from an emergency supplier, not the usual one, if that is a concern?  There’s  simply no excuse with the potatoes.

Why did they run out of something in the first place?

Let’s take it a step farther, a step back into inventory and management.  On my first visit to Vandalia, they were out of sweet potato fries then, too, but received a delivery just in time for us to enjoy their crispy, salty goodness.  Surely they predicted that when we posted our rave review, folks would be pouring in to have a taste for themselves.  The things are FROZEN for goodness sake – it’s not like they’ll spoil if you have to keep them an extra few days before throwing them in the hot tub.

Do restaurants look at sales records to see what products are moving and at what pace?  Do they monitor product inventory to ensure they have enough product on hand to satisfy demand?  Are smaller restaurants at the mercy of unreliable suppliers?

Daniel has become frustrated with Charleston Bread after being turned away time and again because they are out of, you guessed it: bread.

I know one thing: as a customer, it is extremely disappointing to go to an eatery for a particular item only to find out you can’t have it.  I suggested the location of my girls-night-out solely based on the menu.  I don’t mean to be picking on Vandalia Grille, because it happens frequently in a lot of other restaurants.  I just really, really wanted those fries. 

If the restaurant is out of something, why can’t they tell you right up front? 

I studied a menu board at Mr. Wilson’s recently, never having been there before, and decided on the low-carb wrap.  When I went to the counter, I learned they were out.  Couldn’t they have crossed it off the dry-erase board?  At Vandalia, when we were handed the menus, I feel our server should have told us they were out of a couple items.  Of course she may not have been at fault – the kitchen or manager may not have communicated that information to the waitstaff in a timely manner.

Then there are the unacceptable substituions. 

At Bridge Road Bistro, a companion poured over the menu, struggling to make a decision.  They were told “we are out of chicken breasts, the chef is substituting chicken thighs.  Is that alright?”.    Um….no.  A thigh (dark meat) is not a substitution for a breast (white meat), at least not for me and the customer who tried to order the chicken breast sandwich.  But I do give them credit for addressing the situation in some way.  However, are the chicken breasts they use at BRB really so special that ones from Ashton Place Kroger would have been detectable in the finished dish?

When have you had an experience like this?

Have you, as a server, had to break the news to someone that their order couldn’t be filled?

Restaurateurs, if there are any reading, what challenges do you face managing food inventory, dealing with suppliers, and making substitutions?

24 responses to “Please, Please Tell Me Now – Why do Restaurants Run Out of Food?

  1. Not having a potato which can be safely stored for long time without losing quality is hard to understand. With highly perishable foods it is understandable that a place might underestimate need and run out or choose not to serve what they have because it has deteriorated..

    Also, in the breach it may not be as simple as it sounds to run to the grocery store. Even if we assume the store has the item in question, sending someone to the store might leave the restaurant short staffed at a busy time. I can see where a place might determine that the lesser of two evils is to inform people they don’t have something than to risk poor service which will affect a number of customers.

  2. Good point, Phil, about running out to the store.

    How long can you safely store a regular ol’ potato? I am not sure I’d place potatoes in the highly perishable category. Hopefully you don’t wait until you way low on taters to order more. Especially if you are a steakhouse.

  3. Well, a potato will go bad but you are talking at least weeks if properly stored, and compared to things like fish, seafood, poultry and greens, etc. a potato is not HIGHLY perishable.

  4. From a customers position, ‘there are no excuses. . .but please forgive your favoite local owned restaurant, there are times when an oversite occurs. I know. As a chef/owner of a local place, I have been there. And it is never easy to tell the customer, “we are out or we are subsituting, etc! That said…if the item is a menu staple, planning is at fault; maybe the supplier was out! This is rare, but it does happen. Speaking of going to the store…time is the number one killer… and will determine the quality of the entire tables order not just the one menu selection. Subsitutions- always the cook/chefs choice. He has prepared the dish. It is his/her subjective opinion. But either way it goes…if as a guest, you like and enjoy the restaurant, then you know from experience the intentions of the cook/chef is to serve the guest with care. We know that our lively hood depends on your continuing patronage and good will. Oh, the challenges! I could write so much more…

  5. I have no problem being informed about running out of food and that should ALWAYS be the case.

    However, it is as simple as running to the grocery store. I’m sorry. I feel it is. Don’t give me that short staffed nonsense, I don’t know how many times I’m sitting there and someone is shooting the bull talking to their co-worker. etc… Or call someone in.

    However if there’s nothing to be had there’s just nothing to be had.

    What I do hate are places that say they are out of tomatoes, on Salads and Hamburgers – this cost is built into the item itself, yet it makes too much sense to knock a quarter off or throw in some extra fries or some other means of compensation.

    Nine times out of ten I think this is just Apathy on the part of the business. Trust me I watch Hells Kitchen, and Chef Ramsy wouldn’t put up with “Chef, We’re Out”…

    “We’re Out? We’re Out? well then what do you do about that?”

    “Chef, I don’t know Chef”


    “yes sir chef”

  6. I know it can be slightly disappointing when a restaurant runs out of a particular menu item you wanted.

    Many times it’s because restaurants order from specific supplies on a daily, weekly, monthly basis (depending on the item). In order to ensure quality and safety many restaurants will not buy products from the regular grocery store. That’s why when they run out they have to wait until the next shipment from their supplier.


  7. Thank you for the comments from the restaurant’s perspective.

  8. I am also a chef at a local restaurant and many times when something is “86’d” it is usually because the cook is too lazy to cook/slice/go to the walk-in. Unacceptable, HELL YES! In my experience, it is a constant problem in Charleston

  9. Rest Supplies…

    I understand your statement… but Krogers and Wal-Mart and Foodland will work in a pinch if all your needing is potatoes and tomatoes. Or a head of lettuce.

    My guess is that it has more to do with the Contract with the supplier than it has to do with the freshness and quality of the food.

  10. In our case, it is not so much a matter of having the food item on hand. It is more a matter of having it prepared. As hard as we try, it isn’t always easy to predict demand and have enough of an item ready to sell when the customer wants it.

    For example, we run out of ribs fairly often. It takes us about 4 hours to trim, rub, and slow cook a rack of ribs. After they are cooked, they don’t keep very well. So, while we do the best we can to anticipate demand, we are also mindful of the fact that the meat itself is very expensive, so our profit margin is low, and we can’t afford very much waste.

    On the other hand, we occasionally run out of pulled pork. We cook our pork for 12 hours, overnight, so we have to guess about tomorrow’s demand each evening. Usually we hit, but occasionally we miss.

    If we’re out of tomatoes (which only need to be sliced) or maybe cabbage for cole slaw, we will run to Krogers or Wal Mart and pick some up. But, you must remember that we can’t just drop some more fries in the fryer, or throw a frozen patty on the flattop like fast food places do…our cooking schedule is just not set up that way.

    In our case, if your heart is set on a particular food, the best bet is to call ahead so we can hold some back for you.


    Mike and Kellen, When Pigs Fly Barbeque, LLC

  11. I actually expect a BBQ place to run out of some items, because I don’t want yesterdays pulled pork. Being out of an item at a walk up counter is not as bad as a sit down place. It just takes me a second to look at the menu and make a second choice. If I find out what I want is sold out when the waitress tells me I have to send them away, which means I have to wait until the dreaded “second pass”. Who knows when they will be back. Just tell me upfront what’s unavailable.

  12. I agree there is no excuse for running out of a staple item on a menu, like a baked potato at a steakhouse. Sure, they are probably baked base on supply and demand and they do take a while to bake, but they should be able to anticipate when they it’s time to throw some more in the oven. Now if they were out of potatoes altogether, then I see no excuse for that either. The quality and freshness of a potato delivered by a specific supplier can’t be any safer or better than that of a Kroger potato IMHO.

    I completely understand running out of BBQ and the “specials of the day”. Usually those things are at non-chain restaurants where none of the food is mass produced anyway. If they are out, that just tells me how good it was and to try again next time, though I’m still disappointed.

  13. My last four visits to Cilantros:

    At 5:30 on Friday (free chips and salsa night), they were out of chips.

    On a Saturday evening they were out of taco shells.

    One day at lunch they were out of fish.

    And once they were closed two hours before their stated closing time. The manager was inside and when I gave the WTF? look, she just mouthed the words “we’re closed” and turned away.

    Seems like Virgil’s establishments have a supply problem.

    But nothing beat the time when we had a lunch meeting of the state Weenie Wonks at Sam’s Hot Dogs in Teays Valley: We were told they were out of hot dogs.

  14. Stanton- what does one order at a hot dog stand when they are out of hot dogs? A chili bun?

    LAL – I agree with your comment about a daily special or a time-intensive item like BBQ. It’s totally different from something your just using stright from the fridge or freezer.

  15. If the place is packed and they run out of one of the specials that’s cool. I won’t hold it against them as long as it’s not every time you go there and order a special.
    If it’s potatoes at a steak house. . . I’m walking cause if their food management is that piss poor, it’s hard to tell what crap you’ll be served or where else they might be severely lacking and I aint takin that chance.

  16. On my first visit to Swiftwater Cafe, after researching it on, the manager informed me that they were out of hot dogs for the first time in 4 years. He was very kind, and even gave me a rain check for free hot dogs. Some places like Swiftwater can’t go out and buy products on a whim, because they use specialty products (i.e. Cavalier brand hot dogs.)

    • Hot Dog Man – I must correct you. Teddy at Swiftwater uses Boar’s Head hot dogs, which …wait for it… are available at Kroger. Now I do not expect him to go pay a premium retail price for hot dogs if he runs out in the middle of the day, No. I would like him to pull his 2 hot dog, chips and a drink for $4.99 sign.

      If I were him and I wasn’t going to get a truck order that evening or in the morning I would go purchase what I needed from Kroger (or Buzz Foods) to get me through until my next delivery. I am sure he has a few customer that come in everyday for dogs. I wouldn’t want to disappoint.

      Teddy Queen gives great service.

  17. I think Sam’s Hot Dogs being out of hot dogs has to be the worst! They could have at least gone to one of their other locations and got some.

  18. Like a number of commenters have mentioned, running out of the staples makes little sense and not going to a local market place and picking some up is hard to imagine a business not wanting to do.

    I can understand it when it comes to main dishes that must be prepared ahead of time. But lettuce, potatoes, and the like, eh… not so much.

    When it has happened to me, the restaurants that I’ve forgiven are the ones where the hosts have tried to make me happy with either a coupon for a follow up meal or allowing me to choose a more expensive menu item right then and there for a discount.

    Nothings worse though when they leave the poor waitress hanging and stumbling over herself/himself trying to make me happy but the manager could care less.

    When it comes down to it, the restaurants that work on a regular basis of making me feel welcome and like a worthwhile customer are the ones that I’m loyal too even when the odd mistake happens like running out of a menu item.

  19. Check out Kitchen Geeking’s review of Cilantro’s: They were out of taco shells during his latest visit.

    Virgil needs an inventory specialist. I might be interested if he’d pay me in Udon noodles with peanut sauce.

  20. I agree a restaurant should never run out of a menu staple, And when it does happen a retaurant can borrow from another restaurant or take out of petty cash and go to the store. But at the same time you people have to remember that a restaurant works on a budget and there budgets are usually based on food costs as well. so everytime a restaurant has to go to the store to get tomatoes or potatoes that adds to there food costs which also means that the higher the food costs the more money the restaurant is losing. Yes I have worked in restaurants for almost 20 years.

  21. Charles-
    As an accountant, I do understand about budgets and costs.
    If a restaurant runs out of a basic item which could be easily obtained by running to the nearest grocery, they run the risk of losing a customer which will cost more than the difference between wholesale and retail potatoes.

  22. I once went to a Dennys for a late night snack run with four friends and every other thing we ordered was out, to the point that it was comical. I finally settled on some chicken wings and after a half hour of waiting, after everyone at my table had been served, they told me they’d run out of wings. I burst out laughing and I said, “Well, then I’ll have a refill on my ice water.” I guess they ran out of ice because I never got that refill. I wrote down everything we ordered that night and they had run out of nine items, and it wasn’t after a holiday or anything. It was just a typical Tuesday night.

  23. it’s probably not that they ran out of actual potatoes. but that it takes a while to prepare a proper potato if you aren’t microwaving things.

    restaurants prepare for a certain number of customers a day. if they happen to have a rush on some item, vs all the other side items you could have ordered, then they will run out of what is prepared for that day.

    if it’s a good restaurant, they aren’t going to just run to a store nearby to slap something together in the microwave. it’s about quality as well as trying hard to estimate the number of customers in a day.

    you don’t just make hundreds of items when you have to think of each individual night’s sales and costs. you don’t make a ton of random food and just hope that you don’t have to throw all that food away at the end of the night. a good restaurant tries to figure out how many of certain things to start cooking early and have ready for the particular dinning hours.

    some things can be fixed up quick but not fresh bread, which has to rise and then bake, or potatoes that take up to an hour to cook in the oven or other foods that might need time to thaw and be portioned out.

    on the other hand, it might be just a crappy restaurant that doesn’t know what they are doing.

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