By KIM SEVERSON On JAN. 11, 2016
A cake posted to the private Instagram account of Neal McCarthy, an owner of the Atlanta restaurant Miller Union.
Cakes are meaningful, so it is no surprise that people sometimes bring them along to a restaurant as a celebratory coda to a special meal. And it’s no surprise that restaurants don’t always like it.
So restaurants often charge customers to cut and plate the cake. Sometimes they add a scoop of ice cream. The practice has come to be called cakeage. It’s a play on corkage, the fee a restaurant levies to open a bottle of wine brought by the customer.
Neal McCarthy, who owns the Atlanta restaurant Miller Union with the chef Steven Satterfield, takes things a step further. His private Instagram account is filled with photographs of cakes customers have carried into Miller Union. He pokes fun at grocery store monstrosities and cakes fashioned from chocolate chip cookie dough, cracking wise about garish icing and other questionable decorative choices.
“It’s like my comic relief and my only way of getting back at people, even though I do it secretly,” Mr. McCarthy said. “These people sought out a nice restaurant, yet they undermine it by bringing in the world’s most hideous cakes.”
Another cake from Mr. McCarthy's Instagram feed. CreditNeal McCarthy
Like many in the business, he views the practice of taking cake to a restaurant that employs a pastry chef an abomination.
“Am I going to bring in my own piece of Wagyu beef or an appetizer I just whipped up at home and ask a place to serve it?” he asked.
And, yes, he charges customers a cakeage fee.
OxfordDictionaries.com added the word cakeage in 2015, but it has been around longer. The San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen used the term as a joke as early as 1991.
The issue of cakeage heated up in London last year, when a newspaper reported that one of the city’s top restaurants charged the equivalent of about $14 a person in fees. “Has the world gone mad?” one Scottish pastry cook posted on Twitter.
Restaurant owners say cakeage covers the cost of the waiter’s time and washing the dishes. It also helps offset the loss of revenue from in-house desserts and makes up for the extra time a party will be at the table but not ordering food. And many hope it will slow the flow of outside cakes.
The word cakeage was added to OxfordDictionaries.com in 2015. CreditNeal McCarthy
Some restaurants, like Daniel in New York, simply don’t allow cakes to be carried in. A call to inquire about bringing a cake was met with the offer of an in-house alternative: a $50 cake that would serve six. But Gramercy Tavern encouraged a caller to bring a cake, cheerfully adding that there would be no fee.
At Momofuku Má Pêche in Midtown, which sells desserts from its sister operation, Milk Bar, a worker who picked up the phone said the restaurant charged a $5-per-person plating fee. But she passionately outlined the attributes of ordering one of the whole cakes by the pastry chef Christina Tosi.
If you really want to take your own cake, here’s a pro tip: call the restaurant and ask for permission. It’s a matter of courtesy and respect, said Emily Luchetti, the star San Francisco pastry chef. “If you call ahead,” she said, “nine times out of 10 you can talk to the restaurant owner and the person will probably say fine.”
The idea that a restaurant would refuse to serve a customer’s cake, let alone charge for it, is the kind of policy that angers some diners and fuels Yelp rants, like one a few years ago in which a popular Boston restaurant, Stephanie’s on Newbury, was taken to task because the staff failed to keep an ice cream cake frozen, served the melted results and charged $1 a person.
The Norma Rae of the anti-cakeage movement may be Rose Levy Beranbaum, a cookbook author who has devoted her life to baking cakes. She drove the issue to the surface in a 2010 blog post she wrote after the Breslin in the Ace Hotel New York charged her $25 in cakeage. As she tells it, she, her husband and two friends spent $145 for lunch, then opened a small box with two slices of her deep chocolate passion cake. She wanted her friends, both food professionals, to taste it. They told the waiter and asked for forks and plates. They were rebuffed and endured a humiliation she still calls “the worst food experience I have ever had.”
Restaurant owners say cakeage covers the cost of the waiter’s time and washing the dishes. CreditNeal McCarthy
In several states, including New York, there are no laws prohibiting guests from eating their own food in a restaurant. Many chefs and restaurant owners say they try to be prepared for the customer who shows up with an unexpected cake because the practice is becoming so common.
“It’s a restaurant and it’s the hospitality industry,” said Vinny Accardi, who runs Room 55 in Queens, which was featured in a recent episode of “Restaurant Startup” on CNBC. “The whole goal is to make people have a good time.”
People show up at his small restaurant about once a month with a cake. “The owner in me says it’s stupid to lose a table of 10 or 12 people from not allowing them to bring a cake,” he said. He doesn’t charge a fee, but he thinks cakeage based on half the average price of a dessert is fair.
The notion of bringing in one’s own cake is perhaps more offensive to pastry chefs than to restaurant owners. Bill Corbett is a veteran of kitchens in San Francisco and New York who is working on opening a refined version of a soda fountain in Los Angeles. If a restaurant has any kind of a pastry program, leave the cake at home and ask the restaurant to make you a cake, he advised.
“I would never go into a bar with a beer in my hand,” he said, “and expect them to go: ‘Oh, no problem. But there’s going to be a can popping fee for that.’”
Still, it has happened at nearly every restaurant he has worked in, including WD-50, where a customer once arrived with a cake from Cold Stone Creamery covered with sprinkles. Sam Mason, the pastry chef, refused to touch it.
“He didn’t want anyone in the dining room to see it and think it came out of his kitchen,” Mr. Corbett said.
And he has been guilty of it himself. A San Francisco software billionaire who is investing in Mr. Corbett’s new restaurant is a fan of his take on German chocolate cake. More than once, Mr. Corbett has had to call a restaurant where his benefactor would be dining and sheepishly ask if he could bring in a special cake. One presumes the cake fee, if any, wasn’t noticed.
Of course, a supermarket cake with “Lordy, Lordy, Look Who’s 40” scribbled in black frosting is a far cry from a cake by one of the nation’s baking experts. Bill Smith, who runs Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, N.C., tries to roll with it.
“I just want people to have a good time,” he said. “They’re here for dinner, not attitude.”
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