This Is the Real Reason Restaurants Have Specials

"Would you like to hear the specials?"

House Special menu board with a street cafe or restaurant in the backgroundThinglass/Shutterstock

It’s easy to get into the habit of ordering the same dish at restaurants. Although tried-and-true meals are comforting, they don’t expand your horizons or your taste buds. Sometimes, restaurants throw in a curveball on their specials menu—but why are they there in the first place? Chefs might know the meaning behind their specials, but servers have even more secrets you need to know.

Why do restaurants have specials?

One of the main reasons restaurants have specials is to move goods before their shelf life expires. Using ingredients in a special is better than throwing them away, according to corporate chef Daniel England of Union Kitchen & Tap. Repurposing ingredients not only reduces food waste, but it saves restaurants money. If restaurants over-order items that have trouble selling, this is a perfect excuse to put them on the specials, says Alex Benes, a partner and the culinary director of Wood Ranch. Food waste at home is a problem you can solve, too, if you remember these 13 food scraps you never knew you could eat.

Special menu quality ranges broadly

Other specials go beyond just trying to use up product. Benes says the most interesting ones actually utilize seasonal ingredients. Specials give chefs a chance to squeeze their creative juices and see how customers react to new dishes. “Limited-time offers work in your favor if there’s a dish you’re interested in testing for possible inclusion on the regular menu,” Benes says. England specifically runs weekend specials to test potential future seasonal menu options. Customers offer valuable—and sometimes surprising—feedback, according to Johan Engman, the founder, and owner of Breakfast Republic. Some of the specials Engman thought would be a success were not. “And there have been dishes that I personally thought were good, but didn’t expect to sell well that were a huge hit,” he says.

Testing new recipes show that the restaurant is innovating. Plus, England says it allows chefs to use pricier ingredients that would be too expensive for their regular menu. “You can expect diners to spend more on a special, especially on the weekends,” he says. So, do chefs ever order specials? Benes says he orders the special if it’s seasonal; England specifically orders a chef’s special which is usually already part of the menu; Engman sometimes orders the special, but typically opts for whatever staple dishes the restaurant specializes in, instead. So feel free to take a gamble on a seasonal special, but stay clear of these 6 other foods chefs never order in restaurants.

Emily DiNuzzo
Emily DiNuzzo is a former staff writer at Reader’s Digest. There’s a 90% chance Emily is drinking tea right now, but when she’s not writing about food and health with a cuppa by her side, you can find her lifting at the gym, listening to murder mystery podcasts and liking one too many astrology memes.